This week we put our five questions to Blind Justice authors K.A. Kron & Brenda L. Leffler:
Blind Justice is out now from Lethe Press. Check it out. (Plus, first in the series Injustice is reduced to $12 in paperback.)
This month at Lethe sees the release of Blind Justice by K.A. Kron & Brenda L. Leffler, second in the Nemesis series. Riley Connors has some serious woman problems. The love of her life, Ali Garcia, won't give her the time of day, but plenty of others want a piece of her. Riley's stream of one night stands doesn't get her any closer to Ali, but does get the attention of a dangerous old flame who brings the past crashing back. While trying to make time to focus on her second year of law school, she and Charlie race to stop whoever is checking names off of a hit list, as the victims get closer to home. The ticking of the clock grows louder by the minute, and when the timer goes off, it's not a drill.
PLUS: First in the series Injustice is reduced to $12 in paperback, and K.A. Kron's lesbian military romance series Don't Tell and Shades of Gray are only $8 in paperback each!
Read an excerpt from the book:
I drove north on the interstate until reaching the coordinates I had been given, fi nally ending up on a ranch in the middle of nowhere outside of Erie, Colorado. I could see buildings in the distance, and assumed that they were my destination. Why couldn’t he have just given me an address?
As I rolled to a stop, I quickly closed the windows and sunroof, before the dust covered the interior of the Jeep. I pulled my long, unruly black hair into a ponytail and grabbed a pair of sunglasses from the center console. I walked toward the house, wondering what new trouble Charlie was getting me into today. Knowing him, I expected to see at least one person toting a gun. As if on cue, I heard boots crunching in the gravel on the side of the nearest building. I stopped dead in my tracks as a very large, muscular man stepped around the corner, an automatic weapon in his hands. He was obviously here to deter uninvited guests. Charlie appeared behind him, also packing serious fi repower.
“Cripes, put that thing away,” I said, waving my hand at Charlie.
Charlie lowered the weapon, but didn’t relax. “It’s about time you got here. I was expecting you an hour ago, Riley.” He nodded to the other man. “Victor gets itchy when people aren’t on time.”
I took a swig of my lukewarm coffee. “Good morning to you, too, and to you, Victor,” I yawned. “I was busy last night...I overslept.”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “What number are you up to?”
Ever since Ali and I had broken up, Charlie and my friends had taken a special interest in my sex life. I tried to keep the iciness out of my voice. “Who’s keeping count?”
He grinned. “Oliver,” Charlie replied, referring to our mutual friend and my current roommate.
I snorted. “It was a rhetorical question.” I looked around the barren landscape. “What the hell are you doing out here? And what the hell am I doing out here, especially so early in the morning?”
Charlie kicked at the dirt with his boots, avoiding my eyes. “Well, I need a ride.”
I wasn’t surprised. Charlie’s legal and illegal exploits rarely shocked me anymore. “A ride? Where?” I looked past Charlie and watched a tumbleweed roll across the road, knowing there wasn’t a Starbucks within miles. I sighed and looked at my watch.
“There’s no coff ee out here, Riley.” Charlie shook his head, reading my thoughts. “I know you’re not going to like it, but I’ve got to drop some things off , and if I’m late my associates get a bit cranky.” He started walking toward one of the bigger buildings and I trailed behind, not willing to let Charlie know I was almost excited to be a part of his adventure, regardless of how dangerous or illegal it would be. Inside was a small airplane and despite my conflicted feelings about Charlie’s latest venture, I was drawn to the sleek beauty of the small aircraft. I moved closer, peering through the open cargo door that was stacked with crates containing items I didn’t want to know about.
“Fuck me. Are you serious?”
Charlie Black crossed his large, tattooed arms, giving him an even more intimidating look. He hadn’t been in either the military or the CIA in two years, but Charlie still kept his dark hair short and could pass the U.S. Navy SEAL physical tests with relative ease. Charlie appeared to be in his mid-thirties, but even I didn’t know his true age. He had been my mentor and friend in the CIA and was there for me at a point when we were forced to fl ee the agency together.
While I had tried to assimilate into civilian life by enrolling in law school and getting a job, Charlie had more difficulty letting go of his former world and still operated on the edge. He had kept me out of his shenanigans for the most part, until now.
“I don’t have much choice,” Charlie said. “If there was any other way, I’d have already taken care of it. We’ll be back before you know it.”
I stood on the concrete fl oor, staring at the plane in front of me. Without knowing the details, I knew that what Charlie was asking could have serious consequences. Of course, at this point in my life, I really didn’t give a shit.
“Let’s roll this thing out then, so I can do the preflight. I hope you were kidding about the coffee, Charlie. You’d better find me fresh cup. Good thing I didn’t have any more to drink last night or there’s no way I’d even consider flying.”
I set about getting the plane ready, while Victor muscled open the hangar doors, and Charlie secured the cargo. I didn’t ask him who was originally supposed to make the run, because I honestly didn’t want to know. I hadn’t flown in some time, but it was like riding a bike. Charlie climbed in next to me once we were ready to roll, a cup of steaming coffee in each hand.
While I warmed up the engines, he plugged coordinates into the GPS. It was a pretty plane, with a pretty price. I hoped that its real owner didn’t want it back before the flight was over.
I looked over at Charlie, my eyes still stinging from the lack of sleep. He’d put the assault rifle in the back seat, but least he didn’t have it in his lap. “So, where are we going?”
Charlie didn’t beat around the bush. “Just down to New Mexico.”
I shook my head. “New Mexico, for sure, not Old Mexico?”
He nodded, and I stared in his eyes for a full minute, knowing that Charlie could change our destination once we were closer, and I’d be hard pressed to do anything about it. I was convinced, for the moment, that he was being truthful. “Well, at least we’re not leaving the country.”
He grinned. “Not today.”
For that, he received my evil eye. “I’m not doing this again.”
“Come on, Riley. Don’t be such a killjoy. Don’t you feel alive? The thrill of the unknown? The adrenaline pumping?” Charlie poked me in the shoulder and smiled, his teeth glowing against his tan skin and scruffy beard.
I yawned again as I gave the plane full throttle, the grass beneath us providing a surprisingly smooth runway.
We took flight and I climbed to a safe altitude. “Are we going to be shot at when we land?”
He shook his head, but offered a dazzling smile. “I don’t think so.”
“Then I don’t see why there should be any fuss, unless there’s a sting operation in progress. And I’m assuming your contacts would have let you know that, right?”
Charlie sighed. “You’re taking all the fun out of this,” he said.
“Yep. That’s my goal.”
We reached our destination without incident, and landed with minimal jarring. The runway was not well maintained, so I had to watch carefully to avoid large potholes that could have easily flipped the plane.Before rolling to a stop, I positioned the aircraft so that we were facing down the runway, ready for takeoff . I didn’t shut down the engines, or unfasten my seat belt.
Charlie instinctively grabbed his rifle, handing me a Glock handgun. “Just in case.”
I checked to make sure it was loaded as several vehicles approached the plane at a rapid pace. My adrenaline was pumping and I was wide awake, and not because of the coffee. “Charlie. Make it quick, okay?”
He stood in the open doorway and smiled. “That’s the plan.”
All Lethe Press books, including Blind Justice, are available through the major online retailers and booksellers. You can also support the press and authors by buying directly from our website.
In celebration of the release of Blind Justice by Kathy Kron and Brenda L. Leffler, the first in the series, Injustice, is only $12 in paperback from our website.
The Mile-High City has its troubles. Fortunately it also has a troubleshooter, Riley Connors, who is more than what she seems: law student, waitress, and flirt. Because Riley has a past and connections that enable her to protect the people around her. She's a nemesis to many. Her penchant for investigating and meting out justice to criminals and scum that the law has not touched is about to be tested when Riley meets Ali Garcia, a girl who presses every one of Riley's buttons, from caution to distrust to desire. Ali's in danger and Riley finds herself unable to resist, knowing full well that even her wiles and skills at handing out justice are about to be tested.
Plus, we've also reduced K.A. Kron's lesbian military drama/romance series, Don't Tell and Shades of Gray to just $8 each in paperback! Grab 'em while you can...
It's nearly the weekend, so it's high time for a little fun, don't you think? Every Friday we're posting an excerpt from one of Lethe's erotica anthologies, and this week we're featuring one our classic releases,A Ride To Remember by Sacchi Green.
Read a story for free here (or read another one on last week's Erotica Friday!):
Something moved among the Douglas firs where the forest sloped upward toward burnished rock.
The short hairs at the nape of Sigri’s neck prickled with the sense of being watched.
Outwardly undisturbed, she went about the business of pitching camp on the open plateau. No staring toward the trees or up where rocky crevices concealed, she knew, a narrow cave. No pausing to listen for movement. Just aware, as always, of every detail of her surroundings.
Copperlode grazed serenely on patches of autumn-browned grass between the gone-to-seed wildflowers, lupine and columbine and monkeyflower. She raised her chestnut head from time to time to cock an ear toward the forest, but without alarm. Sigri pretended not to notice. No grizzly, for sure. Even without the light breeze from that direction the horse would have been aware of danger.
When the mountain tent was firmly anchored and a small fire begun in the circle of blackened stones, Sigri went to lean her close-cropped head against Copperlode’s glossy neck. She murmured a few words, stroking the soft muzzle, until the mare’s head twitched and one ear pointed again toward the trees.
Sigri moved away at a tangent to the direction of the horse’s attention. When she reached the brushy edge of the woods she drew her knife and hacked away at deadwood. Her only apparent concern was gathering fuel for the fire, but tension built in her gut as she progressed slowly, casually, toward where someone waited; a tension that spread in ripples up and down her rangy body. Still she gave no sign of awareness, or of the tingling in her ass whenever her back was to the treeline.
Finally she dropped the armload of small branches, sheathed her knife, and stood stretching and rubbing her back. Stetson tilted against the sun’s glare, she gazed out over the plateau and beyond to the mountains and valleys of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Now. Any second. Now the attack would come.
She would come. Pi’tamaken. Running Eagle.
A whisper of sound....Sigri whirled to meet the onslaught, the thought flashing through her mind that twenty years ago Pita would have made no sound at all.
Arms raised, hands locked in each other’s bruising grip, they strained together, strength against strength. Pita tried to hook Sigri’s knee, but Sigri jerked a thigh hard into her opponent’s elkhide-clad crotch. When they fell together her Stetson was jolted loose but she managed to stay on top, her cropped yellow-white head leaning above the other’s bronzed face and tangle of long black hair.
Pita tried to twist away. Sigri’s head plunged suddenly toward her exposed throat, teeth nipping hard at the salty skin, counting coup according to their private ritual. The familiar taste sent a ripple of heat through her own throat and chest and beyond. Once she wouldn’t have hesitated to draw blood, but that had been long ago, and the world a different place. No knowing what might be in blood these days.
She raised her head. Pita glared up, eyes fierce in her angular face. Then she grinned. “Good one,” she conceded.
Sigri worked her thigh against the elkhide with less violence, or maybe just a different kind. Pita began to arch toward the pressure. The old, imperative ache hit Sigri’s cunt like summer lightning, but Pita lurched abruptly aside and then upward with a whoop of triumph, and suddenly Sigri was on the bottom, needles and twigs prickling into her back and ass. The scent of arousal mingled with the sharp tang of crushed fir seedlings. She could see in Pita’s face that the moment had passed.
“Heluva place you picked for bushwhacking,” Sigri said. “What were you gonna do if I didn’t come close enough and then kindly turn my back? Wait to scalp me in my sleep?”
Pita rolled off, leaving Sigri dangling between chill and heat. “Something like that. If the smell of coffee didn’t drag me out first. But you knew all along somebody was there. What made you think it was me?”
“What did you expect, ferchrissake? One, you only made about as much noise as a pair of bull elk in rut, whereas most folks would’ve trampled the place like a herd of bison. I nearly didn’t hear you. Two, that’s one of my own horses you’ve got stashed over behind those boulders.” They eyed each other warily as they stood up. No need to add that it was twenty-five years to the day since they’d first discovered this place, and the cave beyond. And twenty since the last time they’d met here. Promises had been made. Not counted on, maybe, in recent years—neither had gone so far as to remind the other—but here they were.
“Your pretty lady back at the ranch seemed to think you wouldn’t mind if I trailed you up here. Even outfitted me and trucked me in.” Pita eyed Sigri sidelong as they strode toward the campsite. “That’s some mighty appetizing armful you got back there.”
“Emmaline been giving out free samples?”
“Just coffee and pie good enough to keep any cowboy close to home. Doesn’t seem to have fattened you up much, though.” She tweaked Sigri’s lean rump. Sigri tweaked right back, harder, finding more to get a handle on. Running Eagle didn’t appear to have been doing quite as much running as she used to.
Still not that far past slender, though.
“Guess you’ll just have to put up with camp coffee for now.” Sigri ignored Pita’s unasked question as she added wood to the fire and set up the tripod for hanging the pot.
“So does she?” Pita persisted. “Keep you close to home?” The fact that the ranch was two hours of driving and three of trail riding away was irrelevant, and they both knew it.
“Emmaline’s got no worries, no matter where I go. Or who I do.” Sigri finished messing with the pot and sat down to wait for the coffee to boil. No need to mention that she’d had little enough inclination to wander these last few years. Sending Pita up here had been a generous gesture, and Sigri had no doubt that Emmaline had known just what she was about. Emmaline always did know.
Pita surveyed her closely for a moment, then nodded and went off to bring the hidden horse and gear to the campsite. When they sat side by side at last, devouring hot coffee and cold ham sandwiches, proximity and unresolved arousal went a long way toward restoring old bonds. But not all the way.
“Haven’t heard from you in a while,” Sigri commented. Two years since that last brief post card from Durango, down in Anasazi cliff-dweller territory. That had been about the time Emmaline moved in.
Sigri’d be damned, though, if she’d let on that she’d kept count. “How’s it been going? Still irresistible to all those eager young archaeology grad students? I don’t imagine you have any problem keeping your bedroll warm out on those digs.”
“Nope. No problem at all. But damn, they get younger every year!”
“What’s the matter, Professor, you getting tired of teaching youngsters the same old games?”
“Most of ‘em you made up in the first place,” Pita said with a reminiscent smile. “That one about buttering the sweet corn always goes over real well, whether they’re convinced it’s a genuine ritual or not.”
“Nothing like getting an ear of corn nice and slippery the natural way,” Sigri agreed. Her boyish grin would never grow old, no matter how many lines time and weather etched on her face. “Sprinkling cornmeal on the belly and licking spirals through it was a good one, too. Can’t go wrong with corn when it comes to ritual material.” Her tone was light, but the way she remembered it, those things they’d done with and to each other all those years ago had always had a touch of true sacrament about them.
Well, maybe not always. “I’ll bet they appreciate the hell out of Little Big Horn, too,” she added.
“But I expect you’ve gone more high-tech by now, with silicone or whatever they’re using these days.”
Not that Sigri didn’t have her own fairly state-of-the-art mail-order equipment stashed in a handy drawer at home.
“Little Big Horn was always just for you,” Pita said gruffly. “You made him. “ She stared into the fire, which seemed brighter now that the sun had edged below the highest peak. “Like you made me.”
Sigri sensed the sudden change of mood and searched to find the kind of words that seemed to be called for.
“Always struck me that was pretty much a team effort,” she said, knowing it sounded lame. What was Pita looking for, after all this time? After all she could have had if she’d wanted to stick around for it?
But Pita seemed to have some words penned up that needed setting loose. “So how did it happen,” she mused, eyes fixed on the stick she was poking gently among the embers at the fire’s edge, “that I turned out to be the college professor, instead of you?”
She didn’t look much like an academic just then, dressed in traditional elkhide, black hair streaming wild, her strong dark face needing only a few streaks of war paint across the high cheekbones to strike terror into the hearts of intruding settlers. “I never had any use for books or history or any kind of learning until you dug up those old woman warrior stories and made me read them. Woman Chief of the Crow.
Running Eagle of my own Blackfeet tribe, who even took a wife. You gave me my true name.”
“As I recall, I had to tie you to a fence post to get you to hold still long enough to listen to me read ‘em out loud,” Sigri said. “I got tired of the both of us always picking fights just for an excuse to grab each other, not knowing what we were doing or who we really were.”
“Hah! You couldn’t have tied me to anything on your best day!” Pita retorted. “But you did know enough to look in books, and those hippy magazines later with all those Two-Spirit movement articles.”
“I had a little help from Miss Edmonds in the library behind the Post Office,” Sigri said. Just knowing that Miss Edmonds had understood what she needed and not been scandalized had helped her as much as any book. Not many, she knew, were so lucky, even these days.
“So now,” Pita said, as if she’d followed Sigri’s train of thought, “I’m the one who passes along the lore, with everything else I can dig up, literally, about the ancient history of my people.”
“And I’m the one tied to the land,” Sigri said. “These mountains and plains. And the horses. That’s all I need.”
“She goes with the deal,” Sigri acknowledged. “With the plains, and the ranch, and the horses. All part of the same thing.” She flipped the dregs from her coffee cup into the fire and was on her feet before their aromatic sizzling had subsided. “How about you?” she asked, stretching out a weathered hand. “Is Running Eagle still part of the mountains?”
Pita reached up to grip Sigri’s proffered hand. “I’m here,” she said simply, and yanked herself erect.
There was an instant when they leaned apart, balancing each other’s weight; and then both arms tightened and their bodies collided.
It was a hug to leave bruises, more like two grizzlies than lovers. There would be finger marks on backs and butts for days. Sigri bit along the side of Pita’s neck and stopped short of drawing blood this time only because her lips and tongue demanded their turn at feeling and tasting. Pita tore Sigri’s shirt open with her teeth and chewed at a muscular shoulder as though softening up the sinews before devouring them. The old need rose between them, demanding, raising gutteral sounds to rumble in their throats.
“Here?” Sigri gasped, “or up there?” jerking her head in approximately the direction of the rocky cave on the mountainside. Pita’s answer was a hand shifted from clutching at Sigri’s ass to thrusting against her denim-clad crotch. “Plenty to go around,” she muttered, ducking her head against Sigri’s tingling chest so she could see to unzip the jeans and get her fingers where they’d do the most good. Sigri got her hand inside the elkhide trousers almost as soon.
It was all powerful thrusts and surging responses, heat and wetness and more, more, harder, faster, until tensions building for years found sudden, sharp release, as near to simultaneous as made no difference.
“God damn!” Sigri panted, when she could speak again. “We’ve still got it!”
“That’s just for openers,” Pita said, struggling to control her breathing. “I’ll meet you up there.” She knelt to dig in her pack, then moved off across the plateau, slowly at first, accelerating into a smooth lope that took her swiftly into the forest.
When Pita’s lithe form had melted into the trees, Sigri turned away to bank the fire and check on the horses, then followed at her own striding pace.
The trail, such as it was, ran along beside a narrow stream. Sigri was glad to find no signs that any creatures besides wild ones had been this way in recent years, except for Pita, who, at this moment, was as good as wild.
The last stretch was steep. Sigri paused to try to catch her breath where the trees ended abruptly at the rocky outcropping. Anticipation had as much to do with it as exertion.
There were easy hand- and footholds in the stone at first, but higher up it would have been slow going for anyone who hadn’t been this way before. Sigri pressed her body close against a vertical rock-edge barring the way and swung one long leg over to the unseen side. Her foot found the knob she knew was there, her hand reached out to find the slanting finger crack high above; and then she was all the way around, leaping from her tenuous hold into the narrow, gravel-floored entrance of the cave.
Sigri’s eyes adjusted to the relative dusk inside. There had been a time when Pita might have lunged at her at this point, but their games had moved on to something more like ritual, and the place had taken on a touch of something close to sacred.
She almost wished Pita would lunge. But there she was, several yards inside, waiting as motionless as the stone pressing into her back; and as naked, except for a soft deerskin pouch on a thong around her neck. She had built a small fire with wood gathered along the way, and, though it gave off only a little heat, Sigri felt no chill when she, too, left her clothes at the entrance.
She stopped just inside for a moment to duck her head toward four small dark splotches on the cave wall. Painted handprints, left hundreds of years ago. Had they been messages, or simple affirmations of someone’s presence? Or existence? Twenty-five years ago two girls in need of affirmation of their own identities had drawn wishful conclusions. The prints were small enough, after all, to have been made by women. So they had left marks of their own to puzzle explorers hundreds of years in the future, deeper marks, laboring at them each time they returned.
Sigri moved on in, gripped by the increasing urgency of the present. Pita stood silently, pressed against the rock wall, arms at an angle from her sides, legs slightly spread. Only her black eyes moved, burning into Sigri’s pale blue ones. Stifling the urge to lunge herself, Sigri fell into the remembered ritual, lifting the deerskin pouch gently from Pita’s chest and drawing out of it a stick of compressed charcoal wrapped in corn husks.
“Pi’tamaken,” she murmured huskily. “Running Eagle.” The roughness of the husks raised a flush on Pita’s bronzed skin as Sigri rolled the still-wrapped cylinder along her collarbones and across her breasts, forcefully enough to scrape against dark, hardened nipples. Then down the curve of her belly, and lower, pausing to thrust a few times between her thighs until wet streaks darkened the pale, dry husks.
Pita stood outwardly unmoved, but a pulse throbbed in her throat and the beating of her heart disturbed the smooth skin of her chest. The tender flesh of Sigri’s own cunt and clit swelled and moistened, and she knew that Pita’s body mirrored that reaction. The mingling of their musky scents was intensified by the drifting smoke of cedar and sage.
Sigri lifted the cornhusk packet and tore away the covering with strong teeth. Pita’s taste clung to her lips and tongue. When enough of the black stick was unwrapped, she splayed her left hand across Pita’s belly and traced around it, leaving a five-fingered mark on her flesh. Then she drew a line down one side of Pita’s crotch until she hit the rock wall. Sigri could feel, without seeing, the shallow groove she’d chipped into the stone years ago to follow the entire outline of Pita’s body.
Down along the inner thigh, the muscular calf, the ankle’s bones and tendons, she drew the charcoal, following that groove. Her left hand still pressed into Pita’s flesh hard enough to leave bruises as she knelt to draw her line along the outer leg, hip, waist, arm, smearing the skin as well. When she stood to trace around shoulder and neck and head, her body pressed so closely against Pita’s that she could feel their hearts pounding in counterpoint.
Sigri switched hands to draw the line down the other side. This time her fingers gripped Pita lower down, her palm pushing hard against the silent woman’s mound.
“Don’t move,” she warned, kneeling to complete the outline, moving the charcoal inch by slow inch upward toward the triangle between Pita’s thighs; but her left hand urged something different, sliding downward and kneading flesh grown hot and slippery. Still Pita stood immobile, except for her quickened breathing.
“Almost done,” Sigri murmured, so close that her breath stirred Pita’s pubic hairs; and then, as the lines met and the pattern was complete, she dropped the charcoal and leaned forward to taste what she’d been hungering for.
Pita did not move. Her stillness became a challenge. Sigri grabbed at her hips now with both hands and licked and bit at the flesh so clearly eager for what the will resisted. Pita’s thighs tensed.
Sigri worked her tongue deeply into Pita’s warm, welcoming cunt, then abruptly withdrew, and suddenly Pita’s hands were clutching at her short pale hair and trying to force her head closer. Instead, Sigri’s fingers took over, thrusting far into the depths she had once known better than her own.
Pita’s head tilted back. A sound like the low rumble of a cougar sure of its prey began deep in her chest. Then, as Sigri pounded into her faster and harder, Pita’s voice rose in pitch until her final cries could have rivaled the screams of an eagle.
When the echoes had subsided from flesh and stone, Pita slid down along the rock wall to slump against Sigri’s shoulder. They leaned together for a few moments, in perfect balance, until Pita lifted her head.
“That’s only half of what I came for,” she said, not altogether steadily. “Up against the wall, now. If you dare.” Intense emotion underlay the mocking words.
This ritual had always had more meaning for Pita than for Sigri, who looked up now at the cave wall.
The newly-blackened outline overlapped another, the pair linked so that the grooves defining arms and legs and torsos intersected as though two bodies stood close together, each with a hand on the other’s crotch. Their shapes were curved just enough to show that they were female, which, in Sigri’s case, had required a bit of exaggeration of her rangy lines; and, between each pair of hips, a line coiled across the belly into a spiral. Future archaeologists should have no trouble interpreting their symbolism.
Sigri did, of course, stand and press her back against her own outline on the rough rock wall. If she didn’t get fucked by Pita pretty damned soon she’d be banging her fist against that same wall. And when Pita stood before her, outlined by the glow of the fire, naked and wild as some shamanic spirit from the depths of time, Sigri felt the power of the ritual grip her.
“Sakwo’mapi akikwan,” Pita murmured. “Matsops.” Boy-girl. Crazy woman. Old words, signifying their connection to those who had gone before.
The stroke of Pita’s hand along her side, drawing the charcoal through the stone groove, the clutch of Pita’s fingers on her flat belly, heated Sigri’s blood to boiling. She needed to move, to thrust her hips forward, to grab at Pita and force her to feed the hunger pounding through her body.
Still she stood, as Pita had, pressed against the stone. Part of the mountains. Part of time. Linked to those who had gone before, and would come after.
Pita’s hand reached Sigri’s wet folds, probing into her depths, and time and place were swept away by the surging demand of her body. She clenched around the pressure, demanded it, devoured it, until her final shout of triumph rang out like the bugling of a bull elk in rut.
Then, like Pita, Sigri slid down the rock wall, ignoring the scrapes its roughness imprinted on her back. They huddled in each other’s grip until the little fire was almost out. Slowly they pulled each other upright.
“We have to go back,” Pita said softly. Sigri nodded. Going back meant more than just climbing down to the campsite. It meant Emmaline, and the ranch, and classrooms and archaeological expeditions and nubile grad students.
But there was still tonight. Where the trees met the rock Pita turned to flash Sigri a grin of challenge.
“I’ll race you,” she said, and then, shouting over her shoulder as she got a head start, “I did bring Little Big Horn, and first one back to camp gets him.”
All Lethe Press books, including A Ride To Remember, are available through the major online retailers and booksellers. You can also support the press and authors by buying directly from our website.
Every Thursday, Lethe takes a look through its vaults for its proudest releases. Continuing from last week's queer Sherlock anthology A Study In Lavender, this week it's My Dear Watson, the Lambda Literary Award-winning novel from L.A. Fields. Even better, My Dear Watson is just $9 for the paperback this month at the Lethe website.
Read the first chapter here:
He will arrive at any moment, and my dear husband is a mess. Any casual observer would see the flyaway strands of my hair, my misaligned skirts, one boot untied, and assume that I was the flustered one, but this is only my natural state. Watson sits in a chair by the door, hands compulsively rubbing his knees, mustache twitching irregularly, waiting in a fit of nervous agony. If I were to press my ear to his chest, I would hear his heart beating a swift clip, like a thing terrified.
“Darling,” I say as descend the stairs in front of him. “Would you help me tie these laces? I don’t want to bend in this dress and wrinkle it up before our guest arrives.”
“Of course,” he says, his mustache twitching at me as he mumbles. I place my foot on the seat of his chair, toe pointed between his knees. He takes up my bootstraps and starts to tighten them, but his fingers shake too badly. “I can’t,” he admits, his voice wavering pathetically as if he might burst into tears. He sinks his head back into his hands.
“That’s all right. I’ll ask Kitty for help.” I kiss the top of his head, but he hardly notices; it’s as if a fly has bumped into him. Poor thing; he cares what this man thinks of us.
I hobble into the kitchen trying to keep my boot on all the way. I am making an effort on behalf of my husband, but I am not concerned with whether or not He likes me. I think the likelihood is rather stacked against us becoming friends, with all that we have stolen from one another. But I seem to be alone in my reluctance to meet this man. Kitty is chattering with our cook as I walk in, and she is positively flushed with anticipation.
“…and I told Celia that I would actually be meeting Sherlock Holmes and she’s so jealous she refuses to believe me. It’s true that I’ll be introduced to him, Mrs. Watson? I only want to get a look at him, maybe let the distinguished gentleman kiss my hand!”
“I’ll introduce you as a princess if you’ll just do up these laces for me,” I tell her. Kitty immediately sinks into a puddle of her apron and does them up. Sweet girl, does whatever anyone tells her, unfortunately. The young men in this area have already picked her out as the favorite, but she’s got good people to look out for her welfare, if anyone would call us good.
“Thank you, child,” I say to her. “Any other improvements you’d make?”
“Other than your attitude?” quips Maurice, the cook. He knows he can say whatever he pleases to me, that I love him like my own father, who died before the war broke out. The one comfort in that was at least my father never had to see his country bombed.
Maurice has been with my family since I was a child, and he still treats me like one. It makes a woman feel young, and I don’t mind. It’s true that if I choose to act like a petulant child, I cannot be surprised when people speak to me this way. I dread the treatment I’ll receive from Sherlock Holmes; he is not famous for respecting women.
Kitty squints at my outfit from bottom to top. She stops at my hair and shakes her head. “I’m almost tempted to pat it down with some kitchen grease,” she says, standing on tiptoe and licking her fingers, smoothing my hair up and back.
“I look forward to the end of these celebrations,” I say to Maurice. “I feel like we’ve been hosting since the armistice was signed, and that was six months ago. I don’t like being polite for so long.”
“We know,” Maurice says in his bored, sneering way, but he is smiling. I stop over to kiss his face just above the whiskers, careful to keep my body well away from him and the stove, equally terrified of stains as of fire.
The door chimes, and each of us in the kitchen freezes. That must be Him. The famous Him, whom we’ve all been hearing about for years and yet never set eyes on. Everyone I know has built such an idol of him, that paragon of English defense, just the sort of figure people would put heart behind when the whole world cried out for justice during the recent conflicts. He’s more important than ever, as a figure of legend, and it’s all Watson’s doing that made him so. People do tend to forget that part.
I feel my eyes go wide in anticipation, in spite of my deliberate intentions to remain unimpressed by this man, I feel a strange presentiment. Who is he that I should care, except that my husband thinks so highly of him? Rather too highly, if you ask me, but Watson rarely does solicit my opinion about Holmes. He knows the truth already himself, how he can be blinded by the shimmer from that man. There is a reason the detective has never been to our home; he is an unstable quantity, and Watson and I like the quiet life.
I shoo Kitty from the door and creep into the hall carefully and peak between the columns of the banister, hoping to get an initial look at this demi-god, and size him up. My heart squirms at what I see.
There is Mr. Sherlock Holmes, looking just as I had imagined him: tall and slim, his fingers long like a pianist’s, his facial features sharp enough to injure someone walking by. He is browner than he used to be, from living at the seaside in recent years, where he keeps bees and I’m sure talks down to the locals. I can smell a hint of salt from here, so my dear Watson must be overwhelmed with the scent, since he has his face buried in Holmes’s shoulder.
They are embracing each other tightly, blissfully, as if they’ve been a lifetime away from one another. I don’t believe I am jealous—I’m a modern woman, and I knew of my husband’s flexible nature before I married him—but I am rather destabilized by this scene. They just look so desperately happy to be holding one another. It’s touching, but it touches one awfully hard.
“I believe,” Sherlock says softly, and it’s a wonder I can hear him, since his voice is muffled against my husband’s neck, “that Mrs. Watson has joined us.”
I know better than to ask how he sensed me, since he probably still relishes any opportunity to condescend to a member of the general public. I stand up straight, nonchalant, as if I was crouching behind the banister for some other reason, some objective other than to see how they are together. I’ve heard so much about it, after all. Mr. Watson and I have no secrets.
“Sherlock Holmes, of course.” I hold out my hand in an attempt to avoid any awkwardness. He sees right through me, the horrible hawk-eyed man. But I know all about him as well, and I will not be intimidated.
“My lady,” he says, bowing to kiss my hand. He is being purposefully old-fashioned, trying to remind me of my place. There’s no need for that anymore, not after what this country’s been through, and all that its women contributed. “You have a lovely home,” Sherlock Holmes says, as if that is all I’ve achieved. He smirks up at me from his bow. My smile is more of a sneer. It amuses him; I can tell by the glee that smolders behind his eyes like a kindling blaze. I must give credit to Watson’s literary abilities here—I know the look well already. I’ve read all about it.
“Well, Watson, what’s for dinner?” He takes his eyes off of me and it as if I cease to exist, as if he was just introduced to a child, or a pet, and no longer needs to acknowledge it. I can tell this is going to be a long evening.
Holmes and Watson walk off towards the dining room, arm-in-arm, chatting about every other meal they’ve had together or some such dull subject. It is amazing to watch them go about together. They behave quite convincingly as if nothing has happened between them but a temperate friendship, when of course it was the most tempestuous love.
A barking laugh from Holmes rings out as they turn the corner and I linger in the entryway. It is important to Watson to have Holmes here, finally. They have seen one another so rarely since Watson and I were married, and always it was Watson going to him, taking trips to the coast about once a year, hoping that someday Holmes might care enough to come to him.
It took the War snatching away all our sureties, but Sherlock Holmes is willing to go out of his way to see his friend. If he’s so wretchedly smart, why does it take a catastrophe to make him appreciate who he has? His whole life is riddled with upheavals, after which he turns to Watson, assuming (rightly, most of the time) that Watson would be waiting for him.
I can hear low murmuring from the next room, intimate murmuring, the sort of words you can feel brush against your face if you’re the one they are meant for. I struggle back and forth where I stand, at once lured and repulsed by the sound of their voices. I know too much for my own good! Over my years with Watson, I’ve filled in all the gaps.
I know the whole sordid story.
All Lethe Press books, including Before and Afterlives, are available through the major online retailers and booksellers. You can also support the press and authors by buying directly from our website.http://www.lethepressbooks.com/store/p226/My_Dear_Watson.html
This week we put our five questions to Forget Yourself author Redfern Jon Barrett.
Forget Yourself is out now from Lethe. Check it out here.
This month at Lethe sees the release of Forget Yourself, by Redfern Jon Barrett, a queer dystopian speculative-fiction novel from the author of The Giddy Death of the Gays and the Strange Demise of the Straights. Read an excerpt from the opening of Forget Yourself here:
I am living in a hole. I am living in a hole in the ground. This is where they put me, though I don’t really know who I am and I will be someone else pretty soon.
Tarp above; mud below. I am less of a nuisance here.
It is important that you know: I love you.
Of course I have no idea who you are.
But I have no real idea who I am either, so it seems fair to me.
Will you think of me, holding you? I have blonde hair that reaches my shoulders and I am of an average stature—though of course my definition of average will be misleading. I have the long fingers of a thief.
I love you because here, in this hole, that is all I have. Love and earth and rainwater. Perhaps you aren’t real. That doesn’t matter.
I will still hold you.
Will you let me?
I am not dangerous.
Tomorrow I will wake up someone new. The same damp earth will be under the same toes; the same fingers will clutch the same food and bring it to the same lips. But someone else will taste it.
The same eyes with someone else’s vision.
The same brain with someone else’s thoughts.
this is the end.
I have tonight. Tonight is all I have left.
These hours are for me, for my story.
About how I broke the world.
It started with a breakup—I imagine that to be common. The book tells us how breakups should happen.
If one person cheats, the other breaks up with them.
It’s simple enough, and happens to be the first proverb on love in the book. Page 15, written in purple biro. Someone I didn’t know had remembered it and written it down.
I had loved her, as far as I could tell; but she couldn’t believe it. She lashed her tongue to all who would listen: Blondee is cheating. Blondee is cheating with Tie. Even after he was dead—especially after he was dead.
‘Never cheat’, says the book. What exactly cheating was, well, that was not so clear. My body—my full hips and thighs and too-small breasts—those I had shared only with her.
But my mind?
Tie had been there from the very start.
When people arrive here—awakening from a death-sleep which was the end of their old life—they are named by the clues they came with. I had nothing. Nothing but mid-length blonde hair. I was naked. It was how I came into the world.
So I was called Blondee.
I remember a small crowd. I was in the courtyard at the centre of the compound; a single water tap, some broken flagstones, and three-dozen old vacuum-tubes hammered into a row to form a fence. I wanted to know who I was. My skull throbbed. I had memories, but none of them were personal, none of them were really mine, and they were flat, two-dimensional, meaningless. I knew what bread was, and how to clean my teeth. I knew what a city was. But there was no detail. I didn’t know my favourite type of bread or what colour my toothbrush was or even the name of a particular city. When I thought of a city I conjured up tall buildings and empty streets, a lifeless, pointless shell. Those were the memories we were left with.
Tie was the first person who blurred into view that first time I forced open my aching eyelids. He was smiling in a kindly way. He was disturbing. I tried to cover my breasts, left with the pointless, heaving memory of shame. I was declared a minor-theft. Like I say, I have long fingers. A lot of the others were there, though I can’t recall which ones, and they were bored by my arrival. My terror was banal. Tie gave me a blanket, and someone said ‘Blondee’.
We’re here because we’ve committed a crime—that’s what we tell ourselves. I didn’t look so bad, so my crime must have been minor. Due largely to my fingers, I must have been a thief.
That was a long time before Ketamine came into the world. She had also been dropped in with the rations, her mind blank, a carrier-bag of possessions straddling her arm. She was thinner back then, her eyes so innocent you’d hardly have thought she’d committed a crime at all. She was declared a minor. She was pretty, with her long black hair; clearly a seductress. So her crime, she was informed, must have been minor, and it must have been sexual. In the bag was a t-shirt, the word ‘Ketamine’, white on black. That must have been her name. It was added to the back of the book with the others.
We fell in love and she came to live in my triangle hut: a large window propped up against the outer wall of the compound. That first night she’d lain next to me, trembling and confused. She trembled on her last night with me as well.
I knew it was over one day in particular—one of the days just after Tie’s death. We were in our triangle-home. The crisp cut of scissor scattered another flurry of tufts to the floor.
She was cutting my hair.
The hair gently meandered over the smooth brown-and-yellow pattern, carried by a breeze that no number of rags stuffed between gaps could ever really get rid of. Another snip and the draft caught the yellow strands at knee-height, carrying them away from us and to the edge of the lino, which I had cut into shape and used as a rug to hide the worst of the dirt floor. Korma-flavoured noodles and home-made fuck-me-fuck-me perfume wafted through the air from next door, mingled with the tinny music from an ancient player. Ketamine’s nipple had rubbed against my arm as she leant over my neck, la-la-ing along as she inspected her work.
I must have looked unhappy. I was thinking of Tie. Tie rotting.
“Are you done yet?” I swept my hands down myself, my skin all tingled and itchy, the stool pressing wood and metal into my arse.
“No, no, no,” she sang, the notes matching those caught on the air.
It had been my idea that songs should have words, but it wasn’t something I’d be able to prove. The sun shone strong through the glass. I needed air.
I stood up, showering my warm feet and the cold lino with hair. I almost hit my head on the shard of mirror which hung from a string.
“I’m not done,” she squawked.
“You’re still thinking of him. Aren’t you?”
“He’s dead. He’s dead and you’re still wasting your thoughts on him. You’re with me, Blondee. You’re with me.”
“You’re so young, Ketamine.”
That did it. We had argued before, but not like we did that night. All night. She told me I didn’t love her. I said that her gossiping had given me a reputation: no-one trusted me. She countered that she had only told the truth. What could be wrong with the truth?
All Lethe Press books, including Forget Yourself, are available through the major online retailers and booksellers. You can also support the press and authors by buying directly from our website.
In celebration of the release of queer dystopian novel Forget Yourself, Redfern Jon Barrett's first novel for Lethe, the untweetably titled The Giddy Death of the Gays and the Strange Demise of the Straights is only $9 in paperback from our website. Caroline and her Dom live out their normal lives amongst the poverty, alcoholics, and street preachers of Swansea, Wales. But when Dom and his straight roommate fall in love--a passionate, secret, non-sexual love--their lives are transformed into a queer chaos of cross-dressing, gender bending and free love.
Plus, after last week's A Study in Lavender, we're offering yet more gay Holmes with the Lambda-award-winning My Dear Watson by L.A. Fields, at $9 in paperback.
It's nearly the weekend, so it's high time for a little fun, don't you think? Every Friday we're posting an excerpt from one of Lethe's erotica anthologies, and this week we're featuring one our classic releases, A Ride To Remember by Sacchi Green.
White Tigress, Scarlet Stripes
The mare’s white flanks were flushed with rose in the glow of the red paper lanterns.
This second-tier House of Flowers was unaccustomed to patrons who did not arrive in its courtyard on foot, but I would have stared in any case at such a fine beast.
It was not the effortless command in the rider’s deep voice that brought my hand to the bridle, nor hope of a small coin, nor even that he rightly called me “girl”, though it took a moment for me to recall that I was not presently in boy-guise. For a lowly servant in such a place, it made very little difference, after all. No, it was the dialect of the far-off province of my birth that sparked my incautious reflex.
The mare fidgeted, and my grip tightened. I spoke to her soothingly in that same dialect. A sidelong glance showed a look of satisfaction on her master’s face, as though I had confirmed his speculations.
I am no “flower,” being taken for woman or boy depending on circumstances and the set of my mind, but the angles of my face speak clearly of the horse tribes of the western steppes to any who have seen them. The man looked me over as though I might be a workhorse he contemplated buying, but said no more until the doorkeeper appeared, and then his speech was as fluently Mandarin as any Peking bureaucrat’s.
He asked for the proprietress, and disappeared within. Was I to tend his mount in the courtyard while he indulged a taste for the low and tawdry? How long would it take for his Jade Stem to wilt? Something about him spoke of great age, though his general appearance and bearing were of a man in his late prime.
It was pleasant enough to walk the horse about the courtyard, and I was keenly tempted to mount her.
The urge to then flee with her would have been great, however mad. But her master emerged in a mere ten minutes, glanced at my hand stroking her white haunch with something like amusement, then mounted quickly and was gone.
The old Madame drew me within, a mix of annoyance and glee on her painted face.
“Red Lotus, that gentleman is to be your new master. Once you have finished the night’s work and carried enough water for tomorrow’s baths, you will go to his household.” He must have paid her well.
Her name for me, Red Lotus, signified the tongue, and was proof that she found me of use for more than water-bearing. The strength of my hands and arms, too, had been of use to her both personally and as a source of punishment—and reward—to keep her bawdy brood in order.
I forbore to mention that I was not hers to sell, being no slave. Wanderlust had brought me far, and would take me farther still. There was something to be said for working among the “flowers” of her establishment, but I was ready for a change, and a household whose master rode such a horse was bound to be of interest. If I were treated badly, I knew how to disappear and eke out a subsistence as a “boy” laborer at the docks.
“If you are allowed the time,” she went on, “you are always welcome to visit, of course—” she laid her plump hand on my thigh—“and to give us news of your new life.”
I saw that she was more avid for gossip than for any services I might render. “Tell me then, Mistress, what I must expect there,” I said, my gaze meeting hers squarely. She knew well enough that I would go nowhere but by my own choice.
“Few know the secrets you will soon enough observe,” she confided, clearly proud that the she herself knew something of them. “The gentleman is very high-placed, very rich, and, though you must never speak of it—I have assured him of your discretion—it is whispered that he is a Jade Dragon whose consort is Bai Hu, a White Tigress. Such women develop the highest sexual skills in the forbidden Taoist arts of Absorbing the Dragon’s Breath, by which means they achieve immortality.”
No wonder she wished to maintain contact. But, at my first glimpse of the serene face and graceful form of the White Tigress I was to serve, I had no doubts of where such loyalty as I might ever feel must lie.
The Lady’s body was both slender and voluptuous, her hair a long cascade of deep black silk, her pale skin glowing like the finest porcelain. She might have been no more than twenty-five, except that there were many years of wisdom in her eyes when she chose to let me look deeply; and something indefinable in her voice, like that of her protector, spoke of a far greater age.
I trod carefully at first, wondering what was expected of me, why I, out of all others, had been selected as her body servant. I soon discovered that her Jade Dragon had spent several years in my distant province in a bureaucratic post of some distinction, and had a nostalgia for the wildness of the place and people. He had seen me running errands in the marketplace, guessed my origins, and made inquiries as to where I might be found.
He seldom spoke to me, however, and it seemed that the Lady was to be my sole concern. So, indeed, she was, from the moment she let her silk robe slide to the floor, stepped into her bath, and turned to let me pour steaming, jasmine-scented water over the slender curve of her back. My arms kept steadily to my task, but my blood raced as the fragrant rivulets streamed like jungle rain along the face of a tiger tattooed across her lower back and buttocks. Black stripes curved inward from the upper swell of her hips; large golden eyes stared at me from either side of her spine; and a wide pink nose perched just above the crack where the inner curves of her own cheeks met, descending into a vertical mouth now tightly closed but tempting me to pry it open in search of softness, dampness, heat. Or, perhaps, teeth.
“Girl,” my mistress said sternly, “I grow chilled. More water!” But I knew, as I bent to lift another steaming ewer, that she was not chilled at all. Her scent, and the slight flush of her skin, told me that she was heated by my gaze, that my reaction was entirely as she intended. The tiger’s face stared insolently up at me, daring me to lay the full force of my hand across its full cheeks; and I swore silently that the challenge would be met before I left this place.
But I was in no hurry to leave, and there was much more to be observed. The elderly housekeeper put me to work in the kitchen and courtyard, interspersing her orders and idle chatter with seemingly unstudied allusions to the affairs of her mistress, surveying me sidelong to gauge my reaction.
By the end of the first day I knew that the White Tigress entertained men frequently, Green Dragons brought sometimes by her Jade Dragon, or sometimes enticed by her as she traveled about the city. I knew that in some manner she drew on their qi, their vital energy, for the practices that kept her young, fusing their yang forces with her own yin. Meditation and intensive visualization were also involved, but I found those concepts of much less interest than the implication of fleshly acts. And what, if absorption of male energy was the Lady’s central focus, was my place in the household to be?
On my second day I was sent to discourage an unwanted supplicant at the gate, a former Green Dragon reluctant to accept his dismissal. “Nine times she has pleasured him beyond most men’s dreams,” the housekeeper muttered. “None may expect more!” There were stablemen who could have been called upon if muscle alone were needed, I knew. Perhaps it suited my mistress’ purposes that a woman—she had clothed me in robes just feminine enough to dispel ambiguity—should be the symbol of discipline. I put on my fiercest face and went to confront the man, a minor merchant by his look. “She will not see you again,” I told him firmly. He looked at my height and breadth, and all trace of threat left his face, leaving only a great sorrow. I felt some measure of pity for him. “You have had much more of her than most,” I told him more kindly. “Hold that good fortune in your heart, and do not mar it with ill feelings.” So he went away peacefully, if sadly.
That very afternoon I was called to attend my mistress while she entertained a new Green Dragon, and I began to think that I understood my role. While the fellow would certainly not wish to be observed at such a time by another man (though I was fully aware that the Jade Dragon watched from concealment,) precautions must still be taken. My mistress could be fierce enough herself, I knew, and her slender form belied her strength—I had seen the elegantly rigorous exercises which were an essential part of her regimen—but she chose to present herself as entirely submissive, to inspire and enhance the flow of male sexual energy.
The session began serenely enough. I brought a tray with fragrant jasmine tea and sweet dumplings, baotzu, filled with lotus paste. The young man was a scholar, a poor one by his hungry look, but polite in his efforts not too gobble up too many dumplings. I made sure to remove the plate while there was still one left. He lounged on a padded bench, while my mistress sat on a cushion at his feet. I watched with great interest as she leaned close to him, and murmured words I could not hear, and drew her wine-red robe down from her shoulders until her rose-tipped breasts were revealed. I though of drawing closer still, but contented myself with biting into the last dumpling and working my long tongue languorously into the sweet cream at its core, winning a sidelong glance from my mistress which held, I thought, more of amusement than disapproval.
When she rose to her knees and parted the young man’s robes, neither he nor I had thought for anything else. With delicate fingers she drew forth his stiffening Jade Stem and stroked from scrotum to tip, urging him to greater engorgement with a practiced touch. Her mouth was painted bright red, the only cosmetic she wore or needed; and, as she lowered it toward him, his throbbing tip leapt into it as a bumblebee burrows into a scarlet flower. She held the intruder off, though, with a firm grip at the base, pulling her head back and then plunging forward, drawing away again until the very tip of her tongue lapped at the pearls seeping from within, then working her wet lips down along the shaft so that its considerable length disappeared deep within her throat.
The young man’s groans became deep and chaotic. My breathing quickened, and the dragon-force deep between my own thighs stirred. Still my mistress gripped him tightly, holding off his eruption, until the pent-up pressure grew so great that on release his white geyser filled her mouth and kept on even as she drew back, streaming over her face and neck and shoulders. Calmly she sat back on her heels and massaged the creamy liquid into her glowing skin, and I understood at last exactly what was meant by Absorbing the Dragon’s Breath.
When the Green Dragon had begun to recover, the Lady ordered more tea, and stroked him gently for a while with both touch and praise. Then she lowered her robe still further and began to stroke and pinch her own breasts until he reached out to feel the succulent firmness of her nipples, and bent to taste them.
Her little cries inflamed me, too, making my tongue and fingertips tingle, and my own dragon-force growl in silent fury.
The young man, whose hunger must indeed have gone long unsatisfied, soon sprang to readiness again. The White Tigress played him even longer this time before permitting him to bathe her smooth breasts with the unguent she desired. When she tried to rouse him yet a third time, though, it was clear that his spirit still hungered but his flesh lagged behind.
It was then that I discovered the active role that had been planned for me. From my corner I could just glimpse the Jade Dragon hidden behind his screen, and now he looked toward me, his face a mask of tension that I understood quite well. He gestured toward the others with a tight jerk of his head, and I saw that the Lady had urged the young man to his feet, turned him, and pulled away his clothing until his pale buttocks shone naked and defenseless.
She beckoned to me, spoke softly to him, and suddenly I found myself seated on the bench with the Green Dragon trembling across my lap. My duty was clear, and most welcome. My first sudden smack was enough to make his feet jerk upward from the floor; then I braced my left arm across his back while my right hand came down hard across his quivering flesh, again and again, easing slightly only to take him by surprise with ever harder blows. I was tireless, driven by my own frustration as well as by my inborn taste for making my mark on bodies hungry for the intensity of pain.
His hips were narrow, but I spread my attention from side to side and along his thighs until his skin was red and throbbing from knees almost to tailbone. By this time I could feel that more than his rear had begun to throb, and knew by his gasps and groans that he was verging on a third orgasm. I smacked him with an unrelenting rhythm, interested to see whether he could erupt while pressed so hard against my thighs; but my mistress’ voice penetrated my consciousness as though from far away.
“Red Lotus,” she said firmly, “give him to me.”
If it had been her willing body across my knees, nothing short of force would have stopped me. But the scent of her excitement, the thought of touching her, distracted me, and I obeyed, setting the Green Dragon on his feet just in time for his third and final fountaining to bathe her naked belly.
I was still breathless when the housekeeper appeared to lead the young man away. The scent of the aroused White Tigress was maddening. I knew she was not fulfilled, and watched the Jade Dragon as he emerged from concealment to see what his role would be, but he only looked at her with desperate longing and gave a small shake of his head. I wondered whether I would be required to paddle him, as well, to stiffen his Jade Stem, and whether I could bear to have no part of touching her.
She turned toward her inner bedchamber. “Come, my Lord,” she said. “And come, Red Lotus.” I followed them, pausing at the threshold.
She stood beside the high bed, her back to me, her robes drawn up around her shoulders once again; and then, very slowly, she let them slide down along her body until the tattooed tiger peeked over their rich folds. Then farther still, until she stood in a pool of satin wine, her black hair streaming down until it tickled the tiger’s ears.
The Jade Dragon took an ivory-handled brush from the table and went to her, brushing her hair in long strokes, pulling it’s softness against his own face and neck, bowing his head to rest it against hers.
Then, just as I thought I should withdraw, however reluctantly, he turned and held the instrument out to me.
“Take care of her,” he said, and stepped aside.
I raised the brush to her hair, but suddenly she bent across the bed, her buttocks raised toward me, the tiger’s vertical mouth opening just slightly in an impudent smile of challenge. Instinct took over. I brought the reversed brush down across that sneering face with a sound like the crack of a tree limb. She cried out, and the Jade Dragon took half a step toward us, then retreated
I whacked her again six times, and then pulled her onto my lap, holding the brush handle between my teeth so that I could get my itching hands on her flesh. I spanked her loudly and thoroughly, cupping my hand to vary the sounds, feeling my hot-blooded dragon-force lurch with eagerness at each contact of my hand with heated skin, each moan of her pleasure. Now and then I paused to draw my fingertips along her inner thighs and scrape my short nails across her tender curves, then startle her with a sharp blow, but any time my hand began to venture too deeply she tightened her muscles in disapproval, so at last, in frustration, I took the brush to her again.
Broad scarlet stripes crossed the black marks of the tiger. Each blow distorted the feline face, but always it regained its form. How much did she want? How much could she forgive? She began to wriggle on my lap, not in resistance but arousal. The impact of my strikes vibrated through her body into mine. I wanted to drive her all the way, to feel her wetness soak my robes, but, as her sobbing groans came harder and faster, a strong hand gripped my upraised arm and stopped me. “Red Lotus,” the Jade Dragon said, “give her to me. And go.”
Much later, as I lay in darkness, the pleasant burn of arm muscles and soreness of swollen fingers doing little to distract from the hungry ache between my legs, the door to my small room opened, then closed. Someone climbed onto my bed, her familiar scent intensifying as she straddled me. “Come, Red Lotus, earn your name,” she murmured. I reached up to steady her, cupping her round buttocks with my hands, gently squeezing the still-hot cheeks of the unseen tiger; and, while her purrs and growls of pleasure penetrated the soft night, I worked my long tongue languorously into the sweet cream at the core of the White Tigress.
All Lethe Press books, including A Ride To Remember, are available through the major online retailers and booksellers. You can also support the press and authors by buying directly from our website.
If the New Year Sherlock special just wasn't gay enough for you, we're turning back time to our anthology of queer Sherlock stories, A Study In Lavender edited by Joseph R. G. Marco. Right now it's half price at only $10 in paperback, and you can read a story for free here:
The Adventure of the Hidden Lane by Lyn C. Gardner
I’m placing this sealed manuscript with my solicitors on instructions that it be published at least seventy years after my demise, when all the principals are long dead and any rumour has passed into family legend. I trust that one day this tale will be welcomed among the rest.
If I return often in these annals to the days before my marriage to Mary Morstan, it is only because Sherlock Holmes and I spent so much time in company then. In 1887, Holmes was thirty-three and I thirty-five, and we seemed at the height of our powers. No problem was too obscure for me to attend along with him. In many ways, despite the strains on health and sanity, I look upon those days as the golden age: long nights prowling outside an abbey, waiting for a murderer to emerge in nun’s habit; grey afternoons watching the world stream past outside our train while we chewed over the case or enjoyed the companionable silence only two intimates can share. Whether we brooded over separate projects in the parlour or ran through fields in fear of someone’s life; whether Holmes filled the air with violin music or I, the minds of distant readers with the magic of his work, there seemed one great song between us.
Without a practice of my own, I’d rise in my dressing gown when Mrs Hudson brought our breakfast, and share the morning papers with Holmes. Even without a case, there were times when he hardly slept. I’d wish him good night and leave him brooding over the fire, then walk out yawning in the morning to find him staring into the street, waiting only my waking to play the violin. I’d trained myself to sleep through the stench of all but the most explosive chemical experiments.
“Anything on the fire this morning, Holmes?”
He didn’t turn from his contemplation of Baker Street. The medley of voices, the rattling percussion of hooves and carriage wheels, and the cymbal-like crashes of coal chutes all registered in a higher key as the threat of rain induced a more hurried tempo. I took the chair opposite his dirty dishes and tucked into my kedgeree. The haddock was tender and well-seasoned. Atop a stack of books, a telegram waited for me.
“Situation grave at Leidstone Manor near Reigate, Surrey. Your presence great personal favour. Forrester.”
“Forrester,” I mused. “The inspector we met in the affair of the Reigate squires?” Five months before, in April, I had convinced Holmes to leave the poisoned city air for some needed rest in the country. To his delight, theft and murder had broken into his vacation. The young officer in charge had been duly appreciative of Holmes’s talents.
“The very same.”
“What do you suppose it is?”
“I understand that Sir Hugh Syms-Caton has been ailing for sometime.”
“Syms-Caton. Why do I know that name?”
Holmes held up a slim volume that had been concealed between his body and the window. His finger still marked a page, but I could read the impress of gold upon the cover: Songs of Earth and Heaven by Catherine Syms-Caton.
“Now I remember. Sir Hugh’s niece writes poems; her brother writes adventures. What is his name–”
Holmes gestured to the table, watching me with the faintest smile. He said, “I took the liberty of running out to the bookstore on the corner while you slept.”
I hefted one of the books stacked beneath the telegram. The Squire of All or Nothing by Aubrey Syms-Caton. “Seems to promise a good sword fight to while away a fall afternoon. So, what’ll it be, Holmes? A duel upon the downs?”
“Hardly that, Watson,” he replied, and slipped into his coat. He tipped the brim of his hat toward me. “But a doctor’s services might be in order.”
My army training and Holmes’s austere habits made packing the work of a moment. I grabbed my valise and doctor’s bag. Holmes scooped up the books as we hastened out the door.
On the train, we passed the books back and forth. “Not bad, Watson,” Holmes commented as he handed me the slimmer volume. I’d got a fair way into one of the novels – murder, unjust imprisonment, and a case of mistaken identity – but I set it aside to see what had impressed my critical friend. The poems’ raw power clawed through the smooth veneer of form and sentiment. “Whoever inspired these is a lucky man.”
Holmes said thoughtfully, “There is something caged – something furious and helpless here that cries out and beats the bars.”
Inspector Forrester met us at the station with a brougham bearing Sir Hugh’s arms. A sober young man, Forrester looked smart in his inspector’s uniform, but concern had etched grooves in his narrow face. His wide brown eyes lingered, considering everything. A thick but precisely trimmed moustache paralleled a solemn mouth.
He said, “Thank you for coming, Mr Holmes. Dr Watson. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.”
Holmes and I shared a bench inside the brougham. Holmes said, “Pray tell us the trouble, Inspector.”
Though he sat with the sun in his eyes, Forrester’s keen face clouded. “When their father died fifteen years ago, Sir Hugh took on the role for his niece and nephew. Now he lies at death’s door –” His eyes shifted to me. “I’m glad you’re here, Doctor. It seldom hurts to have a second opinion, especially when all other hope is gone.”
I nodded, murmured “Of course.” But Holmes said shrewdly, “I take it there’s some trouble getting in to see him.”
“Not yet. But there might be. There are these manuscripts, you see –” His gaze slid to the woodlands rushing past. “Having unpublished manuscripts stolen is a terrible thing for any writer. But these manuscripts, sir – these manuscripts –”
“A little unusual, are they?”
Forrester said, “They don’t want their uncle’s last thoughts to be marred by – this situation. They’re concerned about the shock when his health is so delicate. They’re also afraid that in a moment of anger he might shut them out, and they’d lose their last hours with him.”
“You lost your own father early, Mr Forrester,” Holmes observed gently.
Forrester nodded, the underlying sadness rising to his face. “The day after the manuscripts vanished, they received an anonymous letter warning them that unless they comply with certain demands, their uncle will be shown the manuscripts.”
“And the conditions?”
Forrester growled, “Aubrey is to renounce his claims and leave the country. He and Kate must urge their uncle to adopt another heir. They’re to say their farewells and leave for his holdings in America.”
“What, both of them?” I exclaimed.
Holmes mused, “The sister must not inherit either. There’s someone else.”
“There’s a rumour that Sir Hugh has an unacknowledged son.”
Holmes stared out the window as the fields rolled past. I asked, “Could Sir Hugh’s wife be interested in the matter? Without children, she may worry she’ll lose her home when he dies.”
Forrester said, “If Lady Hilda’s aim were to disinherit her nephew, I don’t see how it could suit her purpose to withhold the manuscripts at all.”
I asked, “They’re that bad, then?”
Forrester said, “There are others who might be injured as well.”
Afternoon gilded the fields. I drank deep of country air. The great house stood atop a sloping lawn, facing the early afternoon sun. Forrester said, “My mother and I would be honoured if you’d stay with us tonight. The manor might be more comfortable, but with Sir Hugh’s health, it would be best not to strain the household further.”
I said, “I’m sure we’ll be quite comfortable. Thank you.”
We’d scarcely entered the house when two golden youths stepped into the entry hall, their curly-haired beauty shining like Apollo and Athena in the misty interior light. Forrester introduced us, then said, “I must return to my duties. Aubrey, Kate, I’ll leave you with your guests. Mr Holmes, Dr Watson, I’ll call for you at dinner time.” He nodded and left.
“We’re very pleased to meet you,” said Kate. Shadows lurked beneath her red-rimmed eyes and hollowed cheeks, but she made an effort to smile.
Aubrey bore the same marks of weariness, but his hectic energy demanded some object. “Come upstairs with us, Mr Holmes. It all begins and ends there.” He hit the stairs running.
“Pray excuse my brother,” murmured Kate. “He’s anxious to resolve this – there’s nothing else we can do to help Uncle.”
“Understandable,” said Holmes. His eyes brightened with the challenge. His long legs took the stairs two at a time, leaving Kate and myself to bring up the rear.
On the second floor, we entered a study lined with large, glassfronted cabinets filled with books and keepsakes. The wide oak desk stood with its left edge toward the window. Facing it, a smaller table held a typewriter, its keys shining with daily use. A brace of armchairs stood before two tall secretaries with a lamp between.
Kate locked the door behind us and settled behind the big desk. Aubrey perched by the typewriter, his wild curls bobbing as he showed off with a rapid burst on the machine. Kate set her elbows on the desk. “This is Uncle Hugh’s private study,” she said. “He’s let us use it since I was nine and Aubrey eight. We used to sit at those secretaries, completing our schooling while he worked. We seldom spoke, but we enjoyed being industrious together.”
“When we got older,” Aubrey said, “we learned that Uncle Hugh didn’t conduct his affairs here so much as he sought refuge. This was the place where he came to read romances –”
“– or write funny lyrics,” Kate said. “He’d slip them into our books to mark our lessons.”
“For a while there, Uncle Hugh and I had a poetry war going on,” Aubrey said. “We’d leave poems on top of important papers or hidden in drawers, composed in the most stately and serious manner. The trick was to break the other’s composure. We’d read them and go about our business, but if one of us laughed, or grinned, or shed a tear –”
Kate said, “Of course, I enjoyed it immensely. But I laughed so much they gave up surprising me. I’d get the one who wrote it chuckling, and that was a forfeit. So while they attacked their poetry with all the gravity of war, I sat in my corner of Uncle’s big desk, gazing out the window at my own dreams – and jotting them down.”
“It sounds like your writing is something of a family tradition,” I said. “Your uncle must be very proud of you.”
“Oh, he is!” Kate caught her breath. “When Uncle took to his bed, he asked us to keep writing for him. Every day, we come in here and –” She hung her head.
Aubrey said quietly, “We try to carry on. He likes to hear our work as we write it. It’s one of the fi rst things he asks – it seems to keep him going. But it isn’t easy, Mr Holmes.”
Kate said, “That’s why we’re so sick about the theft. We’ve lost work that represents time we could have spent with our uncle, even if it was his wish. If that time was wasted –”
Holmes stood, stretching his lanky frame. “Where did you keep the manuscripts? Looked up in this room?”
Kate said, “The typescripts are kept in the secretary behind Dr Watson, where we can get to them easily. The manuscripts are locked in the safe above the fi replace.”
Holmes rounded on Aubrey. “With so much at stake, you still think it’s worthwhile to lie to me?”
Aubrey blanched. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course not.” Holmes off ered a wintry smile. “Do you think I don’t already know your secrets? Your sister’s romances are no doubt far more popular under your name than they would ever be under hers. As for your poetry, I’ve no doubt the man you love is well-placed, and neither one of you can bear the scandal.”
Kate gave a small cry. Aubrey stood with clenched fists, but Holmes continued relentlessly. “You take great pains to hide the holographs, yet the typescripts are kept in an obvious location, and the work itself is published for anyone to read. Typewriting may be a modern fad, but it’s more frequently done by those who must earn their wages. I asked myself why it was so important that the handwriting be hidden. If you’d stolen another’s work, the demands would include acknowledgement or restitution – even if the author wanted revenge as well. But if you were each the author of the other’s work, the secrecy would certainly be justified. It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for a woman to study fencing; but the poetry published under Catherine Syms-Caton’s name is erotically charged, and clearly written to a man. Since the manuscripts are so dangerous, why did you retain them?”
Aubrey said, his cheeks flaming, “We wanted to keep proof of our true authorship.”
“Pride,” Holmes muttered and bent over the typewriter, pulling the paper from the platen. “Has anyone ever seen you at work, other than your uncle? How did you explain this machine?”
Aubrey stood aside to give Holmes room. “Edmund had just learned, so we asked him to teach us. Since we’re writers, I don’t think he found the request unusual.”
“Edmund Percivale, Uncle’s secretary. He’s our friend. He’s only a year older than I am – Katie’s age. Really, we’re more like cousins.”
Holmes raised his eyebrows. He asked Kate for the anonymous letter and examined it. “How was this delivered?”
She said, “We found it sealed and lying in the middle of the desk when we got back from visiting Uncle yesterday afternoon. We tried asking around without making too much fuss, but no one would admit to putting it there.”
“Does your aunt ever use this study?”
“She has her morning room and the library. Why should she?”
“And has she ever spoken with you about your inheritance?”
Aubrey said thoughtfully, “Not directly. But – once or twice she’s made pointed comments about people who won’t produce heirs, and the line coming to an end. I always thought – she made me so angry, I thought she was criticizing Uncle Hugh –”
They looked at each other, dismay in Kate’s face, panic in Aubrey’s.
I said, “If there was a son out there, who would it be?”
Aubrey said, “That’s easy. Edmund. He’s always been treated more like family. He idolizes Uncle, and he works hard. But he sleeps on the third floor with us. He dines with us. Uncle called him up from the village when he turned eighteen, on no recommendation whatsoever. It’s always been something of a mystery. Edmund himself doesn’t know who his parents are. He lived with poor cousins until an unknown benefactor sent him away to school.”
Holmes muttered, “If a man needs an heir, he doesn’t usually deny his own blood.” Then he looked up from the pages. “Do you realize this note was typed on your own machine?”
“That’s not possible.” Aubrey frowned.
“The relative position of the letters is distinctive. Do you always lock this room?”
Kate said, “Uncle taught us.”
“Who has a key?”
“Uncle, Aubrey, and me. There aren’t any others. The fires are only lit or the carpets brushed when one of us is here. Uncle taught us that was the price for privacy.”
“And who,” asked Holmes, “has access to your uncle’s key since he’s taken to his bed?”
Kate was silent. Aubrey said, “Anyone who’s been in the room while he slept. He keeps his most important keys on a chain around his neck. He won’t be parted from them.”
Holmes said, “I’ll need to speak to your uncle. I don’t think it’s wise to advertise our purpose.”
Katie rose. “I have the perfect excuse. He loves the chronicles of your adventures. We invited the pair of you to cheer him up.”
On our way out, we glanced into the secretary’s office, but he was absent. Aubrey offered to retrieve him, saying, “He’s probably seeing to something about the estate.”
In Sir Hugh’s sitting room, we waited while Lady Hilda helped the nurse bathe him and change his clothes and dressings. As we sat there, I murmured to Kate, “The poems – from a woman, the tone borders on the scandalous. Didn’t you worry what your uncle would think?”
“A bit. I didn’t tell him at first. One day Aunt Hilda found a copy. She was outraged. She said a proper lady wouldn’t read them, let alone write them. Uncle Hugh looked stern. He asked me about the young man in the poems. I told him we’d broken things off. I was on tenterhooks – he could have demanded I marry. Uncle said, ‘Well, it’s no use crying over spilt milk.’ Then he grinned. ‘Better to write about it and have your revenge, eh?’ He seemed quite pleased that I was following in Aubrey’s footsteps. He said, ‘Some parents don’t expect much from a girl except to love her. But these are brilliant, Katie, really. If a little unexpected.’”
At last Lady Hilda emerged, frowning at us until Kate introduced the great detective and his Boswell. She thawed a bit, greeting us and nodding in distracted fashion before she carried off an armful of stained and foul-smelling bedclothes, accompanied by an older woman similarly laden, whose upturned nose and sharp blue eyes spoke of the pert, birdlike girl still holding her own within the soft roundness years had provided.
We followed Kate into the room. The smell was stronger here, seeping into everything – the heavy, sweet-sour odour of impending death. Amid piles of pillows, a narrow face poked like a fi n, sharpened to a lustre by his illness. He formed an unnaturally long, bony ridge amid lumps of cushioning. Kate smoothed white hair whose long strands swirled across his pate, then cradled his withered hand in hers. “Uncle dear, we’ve brought someone to see you. Just think! It’s Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr Watson!”
Sir Hugh wet his lips. The jutting chin wobbled. Past all the gathered phlegm, his croak was diffi cult to hear. “I’m honoured to meet you, gentlemen. Your exploits have brightened many a dark night.” He reached out a trembling hand. Holmes shook it. He turned his watering eyes to me with a pained smile while I pressed his hand. “Since I’ve been ill, we’ve read your stories again and again. Excellently done, gentlemen – and excellently told. I don’t suppose you’d act out your own parts in one of my favourites?” He cast a mischievous look at Kate. “My niece can stand in for everyone else.”
I turned a look of amusement on Holmes. I could already hear the disgusted comment he’d make later about being forced to play the buffoon in one of my exaggerated dramas. But for Sir Hugh’s sake, he acquiesced with surprising gentleness. We dramatized favourite scenes from “The Speckled Band.” Sir Hugh choked with delight. Kate and I held him upright and repositioned the pillows so he could breathe more easily. The tumour was well advanced and had already begun to seep through the new dressings.
When we’d settled him, Holmes asked, “Miss Syms-Caton, would you leave us for a time?” She nodded, taking the current nurse. I heard the inner and outer doors close. Sir Hugh said, “Now, gentlemen, tell me the truth. I may be an invalid, but I’m not a fool.”
“Your friend Bob Forrester called us here,” said Holmes.
“He’s a good lad, Bob, a good lad. I always thought so.”
“There’s a plot afoot against your nephew – your niece, too, as it happens. An anonymous party threatens to discredit them to you if they don’t bid you farewell and quit the country.”
Sir Hugh cried thickly, “I won’t hear a word against Kate or Aubrey! What scoundrel –” he groaned and gritted yellow teeth, flopping like a landed fish as his body strove to slough off pain.
He panted. “What villain dares impugn those children while I’m trapped here like this!”
I said, “Someone interested in the inheritance, most likely.” I eased him back onto the pillows.
Holmes said, “Should you see or hear anything to alarm you, I would ask that you remain calm. Watson and I will handle everything. Accept nothing on face value. Time is too short to let anything separate you from your family.” Sir Hugh said harshly, “I’m not a fickle man. I love those children, and they’re all I have left of my dead brother. Nothing could make me abandon them.”
Holmes said, “Admirable sentiments, sir. Has someone been urging you otherwise?”
Mouth wide, Sir Hugh strained for breath. His torso twitched as though he fought to keep his inflating lungs from pressing the tumour. His face darkened to puce. I hurried to the washbasin steaming near the fire. Holmes stood back as I brought the steam and applied damp, warm cloths to loosen his chest. When Sir Hugh’s face faded to pink, Holmes said, “There’s speculation that you have a child in some other quarter.”
Sir Hugh growled, “People gossip when there isn’t a direct line. I inherited from my uncle, sir. I expect these children to do the same.”
“Please be frank, Sir Hugh. I must have the truth. Have you a son?”
Sir Hugh shook his head sharply.
“Has there been talk of adoption?”
I thought Holmes must mean the practice by which a childless man adopts a poor relative, bringing the young man up in his household under his name. But Sir Hugh closed his eyes. He whispered, “My wife, sir. You must understand. My wife is bitterly disappointed. But if I were to adopt, it might jeopardize Aubrey and Kate’s position, and I can’t allow that.”
I heard a muffled knock, and the outer door opened. Holmes watched Sir Hugh intently, as if reading a story in the lines of his pain-wracked face. What utter control that man possessed, to speak so rationally in the midst of agony. The inner door opened, and Aubrey stepped in, followed by a slight young man whose fine bones took strength from the resolution in his face. His wispy auburn hair hung round his head in a cloud of curls held back by a ribbon at the nape.
Sir Hugh looked straight at my friend and said, “I’m a dying man, Mr Holmes. I must entrust you with the lives of those I love. Please find a way to do right by them.” His glance fell on each of the boys.
“I’ll do everything in my power.”
Sir Hugh whispered, “You’re a discerning man. It won’t take you long to understand. But when you do – please don’t reveal the secret. That is another’s choice to make.”
Holmes bowed to him deeply.
Aubrey took his uncle’s hand. His companion, the skinny, ethereal youth I assumed was Edmund, drifted to the foot of the bed, where he watched the dying man with an expression of such love and pity I wondered that he, too, was not at Sir Hugh’s side. His big green eyes gleamed, yet no tears fell. He stood steadfast and solitary, his hands clasped before him as if they would not move until Sir Hugh gave them orders.
Aubrey said breathlessly, “I’m here, Uncle. I’ve brought Edmund. He was overseeing the estate, as you asked him.”
“That’s fine, Aubrey, fine. You are both good boys. I wonder sometimes – whether I did right by keeping you here. You should have gone off to school like Edmund.”
Aubrey said forcefully, “We’ve had the best education we could wish for, here by your side! Your library alone, Uncle – there’s more to learn here than shut up in university walls!”
Sir Hugh struggled with shallow breaths, watching his nephew closely. “But is it enough? Can you fi nd happiness here, with such limited horizons?” His brow furrowed.
“Yes, Uncle! If only I could tell you –”
They’d left the doors open. A dark shape slid between us and the window, and Lady Hilda stood at the foot of the bed with Edmund. She scowled at Holmes and Aubrey, the glare sharpening her delicate features and flashing green eyes. She looked like a furious bee. But her voice was gentle when she spoke to Sir Hugh. “That’s enough visiting for now, Hugh. You need your rest. Have you any orders for Edmund before we go?”
His voice drifted like a ghost. “No.”
She hustled us out, a tiny hand each on the shoulders of Edmund and Aubrey. Next to Lady Hilda, the secretary looked a full-grown man. Sir Hugh’s voice wavered behind us, “I want you to help these men however you can!”
In the antechamber, Lady Hilda said, “You must understand, Mr Holmes. His health is so delicate. I know it’s selfish to want him to continue when he’s in such pain, but we can’t – even a few hours –” She drew a shaky breath. “You’ll come back, won’t you? In the morning, perhaps.”
“Certainly, madam. I know the vigil must be exhausting. It must be a great strain to watch your husband suffering so, and keep up your spirits for his sake. I understand he was something of a writer himself, particularly in his younger days?”
Her face lit up. Forty hadn’t touched her auburn hair, though the worry-lines in her face said she was older. Her slim, graceful nose and delicate mouth were beautiful, but worry and grief had been scraping her cheeks from within. “Yes, he had a slim volume printed – a beautiful fable. The critics said it was too serious for children and too frivolous for adults.”
“I understand your niece and nephew are quite talented. Have they ever asked your opinion on their drafts?”
Her face shifted subtly. That shadow might have been exhaustion.
Holmes smiled and waved toward me. “Watson, here – when we’re home, he reads me his day’s labours, and when a case separates us, he copies out portions of the manuscript and sends them to me by post. Do you know who might have commented on Aubrey and Kate’s work?”
Her eyes narrowed. She said brusquely, “I need to get back in to him.”
“One more question, madam. Family history is a hobby of mine. I always make a point of getting the basic facts about the lineage of the halls I visit for my scrapbook. Perhaps you could point me to some documents in the library that would help me while away a few hours?”
“Ask Mr Percivale,” she said. “I haven’t time for such things.”
Holmes clapped a hand to his head. “Dear me! I almost forgot. We meant to autograph something for Sir Hugh – clippings of the fictional and journalistic accounts of one of our cases – I have them here somewhere –” Holmes fumbled in his pocket. Papers spilled out, notes and letters and the aforementioned clippings scattering over the floor. Near the top I recognized a sample poem Aubrey had given Holmes, untitled, unsigned.
She moved slowly, as if she recognized the ruse; but training is strong, and she knelt to help him gather the pages. For a moment, as she bent over, I caught the gleam of a pendant dangling from within her petticoats, its porcelain surface marked by heraldic paint. As she straightened, she tucked it quickly out of sight. Aubrey’s poem sat on top of the stack she handed Holmes. Three wet spots glistened on the page.
She said, “I can’t help you, Mr Holmes.” The inner door closed softly behind her.
We stepped into the hall. Holmes folded the papers and arranged them in his pocket. He mused, “There was something disingenuous about her tears.”
“Really, Holmes! Allow the woman her grief!”
“She saw the poem, Watson. There was recognition in her eyes. Yet she didn’t ask what I was doing with it. She clearly has something to hide.”
“And she just as clearly loves her husband. I don’t think a woman who feels that way would set about ruining his final hours.”
“Tut tut, Watson. Your outrage does you credit. But I warrant we’ll see the truth before another day is out. Time draws short for Sir Hugh. Our thief will have to act.”
Edmund and Aubrey stood up the hall, heads close as they confabulated. They glanced up with anxious eyes we approached. “Is everything well, Mr Holmes?” Edmund asked.
“Not yet, Mr Percivale. But we’ll do what we can. Is there somewhere we might talk?”
The young man led us back toward Sir Hugh’s study, then opened a door just beyond it. He walked toward the desk, then paused to put on a pair of spectacles. When he turned, the window at his back, his rusty hair floated like dust in the light. The gold-rimmed specs made his green eyes larger and more luminous. “Sir Hugh asked me to help. I’ll tell you everything I know,” he said softly. Aubrey frowned at Edmund.
Holmes said abruptly, “Please leave us now, Mr Syms-Caton.”
“Mr Holmes, there are questions I might –”
“Go, if you have any desire for us to solve this case.”
I watched with interest as Aubrey’s shoulders sank and he slunk out of the room.
Edmund visibly relaxed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I imagine this has something to do with the letters, doesn’t it?”
Holmes said smoothly, “What do you have to tell us?”
Edmund said, “I know a lot of what goes on around here. I have to, especially with Sir Hugh so sick. I know that Kate and Aubrey are dreadfully worried about something. They’re the ones who called you in, aren’t they?”
Holmes inclined his head.
“Well, what could it be, except the letters? I’ve been carrying them back and forth for two years. I’ve told no one. But I’m not the only one who knows. One evening I had to wait to go out. The rain was so thick I couldn’t see, and I didn’t want to risk the lightning. I put the letter in my room and was reading in the library. When it got late without the rain letting up, I went to bed. Lady Hilda was waiting in my room. She had the letter open on her knee. She must have noticed Aubrey and me exchanging them and got curious. She asked me to explain myself. When I stood mute, she said, ‘You’ll tell me or lose your place. How long has this been going on?’ The way she looked at me – I guess she recognized Aubrey’s handwriting and thought the letter was meant for me. Aubrey never addresses or signs those letters. Sometimes he lets me read them –” Edmund looked down at a stack of papers. “He’s asked my advice about the poems a few times. They’re really good – I would have been honoured if Kate had written them, and they were mine. But I was happy to cover for him, Mr Holmes. It lifted my heart to see two people so in love. You can imagine what it means to me. I lived so much of my life without anyone to care, until I entered Sir Hugh’s employ and gained the approval of the fi nest man on earth.” He looked up at Holmes and sighed. “Lady Hilda threatened to tell Sir Hugh, who’s as close to a father as I ever had. I didn’t tell her who it was, but I told her enough to convince her the letter was meant for someone else. She’s never mentioned it again. She’s even been kind to me, in her way.”
Holmes said, “You speak of Sir Hugh as a father. Have you ever wondered if that might be true?”
“You’re talking about the rumour? I admit, I had my hopes. From the time I was twelve, I had a mysterious benefactor. As soon as my education was complete, Sir Hugh asked me to work for him. From his interest in me and some of the things he said, I was convinced he’d been the one to support me all those years, though he’s never admitted it. He’s always been affectionate toward me – he treats me almost like a member of the family. When I heard the rumour, I couldn’t help but wonder.”
“You realize,” Holmes said gently, “that he doesn’t have a son.”
“I knew it,” he said simply.
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“I know he cares about me. I feel as much his protégé as his secretary. I love the man. The rest doesn’t matter. Sir Hugh saw something of value in me and nurtured it. He had confidence in me.” He met our eyes frankly. “Let me be clear, gentlemen. He has given me all I need to stand tall in this life. I’ll serve him faithfully until the end, and after that I’ll live up to his memory as best I can. But to know he’s not my biological father – it doesn’t change anything. It just confirms that the mutual respect we share is by choice, not blood.”
“Yet there seems to be a mystery about you still, Edmund Percivale.”
The small man shrugged. “Life’s a mystery. I don’t mind.”
The rest of that afternoon and early evening we prowled the great house, unlocking doors, tracing hidden passageways, and mapping communicating rooms, such as Edmund Percivale’s office and Sir Hugh’s study, whose access was natural for employer and employee. We questioned the rest of the household, including Sir Hugh’s nurses, and pinned down schedules and locations for everyone, even Aubrey and Kate. Most people were anxious to help. Their worry made it clear how much they cared about Sir Hugh. Forrester returned at six o’clock. He collected Aubrey and Kate and took us out to the back garden. His mouth was a firm line beneath the trim moustache, his expression one of careful neutrality as he reached into his pocket. “This was on the tray when I entered the hall.”
Aubrey took the envelope. With Kate leaning over one shoulder, he read aloud, “You’ve failed your uncle and yourselves. Your presence here cannot be tolerated. Say farewell by this time tomorrow or Sir Hugh shall know the truth.”
Aubrey passed the letter to Holmes. “What are we going to do?”
“Holmes,” I ventured, “perhaps it would be best if one of us stayed tonight. I could keep an eye out for the thief, watch for further notes –”
“There won’t be any further notes, Watson,” Holmes said.
“Whoever wrote that is eager for the battle to commence. This is a shot across the bow.”
“But, Holmes! If that’s the case, you and I should be on hand, ready to defend –”
“Calm yourself, Watson. We’ll be where we need to be when the time comes. In the meantime, it would be extremely rude to refuse Mrs Forrester’s hospitality at the last minute.”
Holmes stood, taking up his walking stick. Forrester parted from Aubrey and Kate with an extra word of caution. Sir Hugh’s brougham carried us quickly down the hill and through the wood, around the bend to a cottage near the village road. At the door stood a woman in blue gingham, a crocheted kerchief covering grey hair. I recognized her as the nurse who’d assisted Lady Hilda with the bedding.
“Good evening Doctor, Mr Holmes,” she greeted us. She packed us into a warm dining room, cramped but bright, its pastel green walls loaded with shelves of keepsakes. Our hostess served a hearty meal with cajoling good humour, saying, “As soon as I heard that the famous Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were coming, I’d hear nothing but that you stay with us!” The homey way she bustled over our meal reminded me of Mrs Hudson, but there was a sharp gleam in her eyes beneath the country warmth. She waved aside my praise of the beefsteak and kidney pie; she hushed my accolades for her cinnamon apples. In retaliation, Forrester described how much she did up at the manor. When she’d lost her husband, she’d started as nursemaid for the young Syms-Catons, then continued as a general companion and help to Lady Hilda.
Thinking to please her, I said, “Your son seems quite the favourite at Leidstone Manor.”
After an evening of smiles, her acerbic tone surprised me. “He’s fraternizing with his betters, and that never led to any good.”
When she retired, Holmes retrieved his briar pipe and we moved into the parlour. Forrester lit the lamps and built up the fire against September’s chill. From the mantelpiece, he pulled down a battered wooden ship’s case that held two gin bottles. He poured for three.
“She’s been a good mother,” he said. “She always stood by me, always found a way to keep us afloat, and never complained. Did you know my father shipped under Aubrey’s? James Forrester was third mate to Captain Robert Syms-Caton, Sir Hugh’s younger brother – my namesake. When the ship went down, Sir Hugh offered my mother a position so we could keep the cottage. He even let her bring me along to play with Aubrey and Kate.”
Holmes sat with his back to the fire, his shadowed face further obscured by steepled fingers. “How long have you and Aubrey been lovers?”
Forrester started. “How did you –”
I exclaimed, “I thought it was Edmund! That talk of a third party seemed contrived.”
Holmes waved his hand impatiently. “Aubrey leads a fairly secluded life. You’re among his few friends. He’s very concerned with preserving his lover’s reputation, and the threat to your career is greater. But most telling is the care you take to appear disinterested toward him, even though you’re close to the family. Your eyes seek him when you think no one’s looking.”
Forrester leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “I knew you’d understand. Your adamant bachelorhood – your views on women – it struck me, sir, that in addition to your prodigious talents, you’d be sympathetic to our cause.” He settled back with a sigh. “To answer your question, we were like brothers as boys, despite the difference in station and the four years between us. Once I entered police training, I had little time, and we seldom saw each other. But when I made inspector, Sir Hugh invited me up to the manor to celebrate. Suddenly things were different. It’s as though we’ve loved each other all our lives, but only realized it two years ago.”
“It must be difficult to keep the secret. Particularly when neither of you lives alone.”
Forrester smiled. “Oh, we find ways to meet. And our letters are safe enough.” He spoke softly into the crackling fire. “Edmund has been a godsend to just about everyone in that house. He dotes on Sir Hugh, and he’s been a good friend to Aubrey and Kate. And to me.”
Holmes said, “Have you ever known any of your mail to go astray?”
A startled look touched his face, before his features hardened behind the moustache. “Only once, for a few hours. The letter appeared early the next morning.”
“Was it raining? Mr Percivale mentioned a night he couldn’t get through.”
“No. I don’t expect letters in foul weather.”
Holmes sat quietly and waited. I watched the inspector’s face change in the flickering light. Several times his glance strayed toward the stairs. At last Forrester said, “I’m all she has left, and I’m away so much of the time with my duties. I joined the police as soon as I qualified. She’s had to do it all herself.”
It must be hard for any man to speak against his mother, particularly when she’s been his sole support. I said, “One letter. That’s not so much to weigh against a lifetime of sacrifice.” Holmes said ironically, “One letter has been enough to break empires.”
Forrester said heavily, “That’s all right. I took my lesson when we met before, Mr Holmes. One note, treacherously written by father and son. Enough to cost a man his life. But my mother thinks Edmund Percivale wrote those letters, if she thinks of them at all.” When Holmes said nothing, Forrester continued angrily, “Very well. Even if it’s as you say, she might disapprove, but she’s not going to publicize my – oddity.” His mouth twisted. “Can you imagine?
She’s worked her whole life to get me here.” He gestured toward the uniform coat hanging by the door with its inspector’s pips. “Besides, even granting she knows it’s Aubrey – what interest does she have in advancing Sir Hugh’s mythical son?”
“True,” Holmes conceded, but there was that gleam in his eye.
“Well, I’m all in,” I declared. “If you wouldn’t mind lighting the way up to my room?”
“I’m afraid it’s Mr Holmes’s room, too. It’s a small house.”
Holmes observed, “I’m sorry to oust you from your bed, Forrester.”
He shrugged. “I’ve plenty of blankets, and the fire’s warm enough.”
The room was comfortable, but small. We sat side by side on the bed to remove shoes and socks. Stripped to union suits and wrapped in blankets, we discussed the case while my mind ran along another track. Down by the fire, Forrester had made an assumption that Holmes did not refute. Of course, Holmes did not always take pains to correct people, smiling to himself while they led themselves toward a confession. But I’d wondered myself. The concept of two men throwing their lots together was not a novel one for me. In army service, far from home and family, I’d seen men forge bonds far stronger than the marriage bed. Once back in the confines of civilization, their position was much more difficult. I murmured, “Society certainly has given them a heavy burden to bear.”
Beside me, Holmes sighed.
Darkness makes some things easier. But this was still dangerous territory. Despite his ability to charm women, Holmes referred to them as my department, praise I’d been content to live up to. Combined with this, my defence of women in response to his outrageous criticisms might have led him to the wrong conclusion. Life with Holmes precluded all other relationships. We were a duo, inseparable in deed and the public mind. Our brotherhood had been a sweetness to me in the wilderness of London, to which I’d returned an orphan and a stranger. His friendship was dear to me beyond all others, but was I prepared to go through life otherwise alone? Holmes had done so, up till now. Thinking of the solitary violinist, I realized that facing such loneliness night after night must take the greatest kind of courage. I said, “A lesser man might have given in and married for companionship, or form. A good marriage is so often necessary to advancement, in any circle. And his mother no doubt wants grandchildren, since he’s her only heir.”
Holmes said nothing. Perhaps he read no farther than my commentary on the case. It was his job to gather clues and make deductions; I surmised the emotional framework for the principal actors. Holmes’s decisions sometimes derived from my commentary, though he seldom acknowledged the debt. This silence seemed endemic to his nature, beyond his ability to overcome. A life companion would simply make peace with this and leave Holmes his privacy.
My heart beat fast for what I might lose. I tempered my sentiments at the last. “I’d never think less of a friend who walked such a hard path. I’d only admire him more.”
He didn’t answer.
“Well, good night, old fellow,” I said at last, and rolled over to face the wall.
My troubled sleep broke not with dawn but with Holmes’s hand on my shoulder and his familiar whisper, “Quickly, Watson!” I struggled to clear my brain, but already I was dressing swiftly. We crept down the dark stairs by the fire’s banked glow, then hastened after the gleam of a lantern in the woods. The moon dappled a narrow path, broken and indistinct, the occasional stone visible through fallen leaves. We stayed well back, hesitant lest the unfamiliar ground betray us.
At this distance, it was hard to distinguish the cloaked figure. Had Mrs Forrester hidden the manuscripts in the wood? I caught my breath as I glimpsed a structure ahead, half-hidden in the trees. The lantern disappeared. Drawing close, we found a faint glow through the ground-level windows of a decrepit house that might once have been a summer retreat. The path ended at its door – a gaping hole jagged with roof timbers. On either side, the forest pressed so close there was no passing the sagging frame.
Soft voices floated up, just loud enough to recognize as men. No matter how we crouched, the windows revealed only the flickering light upon the farther wall. The occupants must have positioned themselves cleverly under the windows. Then the moans began, and I started back with a burning face.
Holmes laid a hand on my arm, halting me before I made some inadvertent noise. Carefully, we edged away. The sound of youthful laughter rose from that dank cellar. I shivered. Holmes led me back to the house. We remained silent up to the room. Mrs Forrester had opened her door a crack, no doubt to catch what heat remained from the main chimney as the house grew colder. We did the same, and I lay staring into the darkness under sheets grown cold with our absence. I woke with the sun in my face and Holmes already out on the prowl.
After I finished breakfast, I walked up the winding lane to Leidstone Manor. I found Holmes in the library, Burke’s open on the table as he perused handwritten records of family genealogy. Near lunchtime, Edmund found us there. One look at his face, and I grabbed my doctor’s bag. We hurried to Sir Hugh’s side. There we found at last what we’d been looking for. Scattered about the bed and floor lay sheets covered with handwriting. One poem was crumpled in Sir Hugh’s hand as he shook, his eyes clenched tight. Tears trickled down his face and he groaned terribly, as if the knowledge had finally shattered the self-control that had held him together for so long.
While I hurried to do what I could, Holmes bent and retrieved a torn brown wrapper from under the bed. “Postmarked in Reigate. No return address,” he muttered, while I soothed the fevered man. Edmund must have gone for Kate next. She rushed in, knelt beside Sir Hugh, and held his hand. His breathing caught, so laboured it seemed impossible to continue. They whispered to each other. At last he croaked, “Where’s Aubrey, my dear? Is my boy coming to see me?”
“Yes, Uncle dear,” she said, laying her cheek on his hand and closing her eyes.
Lady Hilda rushed into the room, accompanied by Sir Hugh’s regular doctor. “Please leave,” she said to us, her eyes hard. Holmes and I gathered up the pages while she stared as though she detested us. But she made no move to stop us. Too many people rushed in and out, bringing hot water, bandages, brandy, ointments, wood for the fi re, and a hundred other useless things. From the hall, we heard Lady Hilda scream above the clamour, “He knows his uncle is dying, and it’s his choice to go gallivanting! That coward can’t even face him and apologize! If he ever does show up, you can tell your worthless brother to stay out!”
Kate ran out, tears streaming down her face. Holmes handed her the manuscripts. “Put these somewhere safe this time,” he said quietly. I wondered at his lack of tact, but the task seemed to steady her. She nodded, gulping down her tears, and hurried up the stairs. Edmund emerged from Sir Hugh’s rooms as Kate disappeared, his face pinched as he watched her go. “What can I do?” he muttered distractedly. “Lady Hilda wants me to stay with him, but Kate –”
“He’s asking for her brother. Help us look,” Holmes said.
We hunted high and low. Kate rejoined us and we prowled the passages, opening hidden doors and calling through cellars and gardens. Kate got more panicked by the minute, until Edmund volunteered to go to Forrester’s. We returned to the hall, and Kate sat with her uncle while Holmes and I conducted a different search – one that supposed the young man might be incapable of answering us.
We met Forrester outside Sir Hugh’s bedroom. Kate took one look at him and blanched. “Isn’t Aubrey with you? Uncle’s calling for him – he could die any minute!” She thrust a fist in her mouth, but the keening poured out anyway, higher and louder until Forrester gripped her shoulders. “Pull yourself together, there’s a brave girl.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know. We’ll find him.”
Edmund muttered, “I don’t suppose he’s out looking for you? Your mother brought him a note this morning.”
I saw it – the moment when the spark caught in Holmes’s eyes.
“I’ve been a fool, Watson!” He turned to Forrester. “What about that summer house? Is there a way in from this side of the wood?”
A dawning horror spread through Forrester’s brown eyes. He left the house at a run. Holmes ordered Kate and Edmund to stay with Sir Hugh.
We dodged through the woods, following a broken trail whose few discernible stones looked like the white flags we’d seen last night. We twisted among thick trees and slipped down steps cut into the hillside. We stopped at a retaining wall that blocked off a stone ditch, holding the hill back from the ruined house.
We dropped quietly into the ditch. A faint moan drifted through the broken wall. I peered through the gap. Inside the cellar, a woman spat on a prone figure. Amid the blood and dirt, I almost failed to recognize his golden curls.
As I crouched beside the hole in the wall, my hand knocked loose a fragment of masonry. In the dim interior, Mrs Forrester frowned and raised a pocket revolver. “Dr Watson. Why aren’t you up at the house with Sir Hugh?”
Forrester stood facing me, hidden on the other side of the gap.
Behind me, Holmes’s breath was soft upon my neck.
She already had me dead to rights, and Aubrey needed help. My right arm was hidden behind the gap, but she could shoot me before I’d cleared the wall to fi re. I lifted one finger from the wall and curled it, pointing toward my hip. Holmes gently pulled the revolver from my pocket. I edged into the room, my hands in the air, the doctor’s bag hanging from the thumb of my open palm. “Let me have a look at him, Mrs Forrester. He’s hurt.”
“I know that,” she snapped, the gun following me. “Stand clear, Doctor.”
“Let me help Aubrey. Please. His uncle is asking for him, and there isn’t much time.”
“No! This poof stays right where he is! I haven’t decided what to do with him yet.” She kicked his side. Aubrey grunted breathlessly, as if there wasn’t much left in him. In that moment of distraction, I hurled my bag at her face. She reached up instinctively and I ducked low, tackling her.
We went down. Behind me, Forrester howled, “Mother!” In the scuffle, a shot rang out, and the building groaned above us. Plaster rained down and the ceiling rippled, as though that small missile had been the breath that knocked a house of cards. As I reached for the gun, she brought it down on my head. Through the ringing in my ears, I heard a familiar roar – my old service revolver, followed by more hail from the ceiling and an ominous series of cracks and groans. Holmes’s voice rang cold and clear: “I would advise you to drop the revolver, Mrs Forrester.”
Mrs Forrester cried out in indignation as her son battered her hand against the fl oor until she dropped the gun. She punched and bit as he strove to pin her arms. It took both of us to get his Hiatt cuffs on her. By then the old house crashed like the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. A timber vaulted to the floor and I looked around wildly. Holmes had Aubrey’s head in his lap, wrapping his handkerchief around it.
“I’ve got her,” Forrester grunted. “See to Aubrey.”
I joined Holmes. Aubrey’s eyes fluttered. I checked him over quickly. The head wound was the worst, but he had a broken arm and a few cracked ribs as well. Behind us, a desk dropped through the ceiling, its heavy crash shooting splinters. Holmes and I carried Aubrey while Forrester wrestled his mother out into the ditch.
Holmes scaled the wall and helped lift Aubrey onto the grass, then did the same for Meg Forrester, holding her grimly by the arms while she writhed and tried to knock him into the ditch. Forrester and I climbed out and reclaimed our charges. The three of us navigated the steep stone steps up the hillside. We paused to look back as the roar rose to a crescendo with the thunder of weakened walls following the floor and pulling down more roof. At last the house settled into itself with a clatter and cloud of dust.
Forrester bent over Aubrey. Tears tracked his stern face. He groaned, “Mother, what have you done?”
She said, “I can’t believe I ever felt sorry for him – an orphan! You were as straight and true as your father until Aubrey Syms-Caton got his hands on you! I knew something was wrong when you’d say, ‘It’s late, Mother, why don’t you go to bed?’ – but it was half the night before you came upstairs, and you with work in the morning!”
Tears wet her rugged cheeks as she stood over Forrester’s bent form. “You were all I had, boy! Everything! My hope and joy, the only remnant left of your father! If you don’t have children, I’ll lose you both!”
Holmes said, “That was a handy revolver, Mrs Forrester. Belgian, if I’m not mistaken.”
She turned to him with pride, despite his tight grip on her arm. “My husband bought that for me on one of his voyages.” Her voice quavered. “He wanted me to be able to protect our family while he was gone.”
Forrester took Aubrey’s shoulders now, and Holmes propelled Mrs Forrester up the lane. “So you lured Aubrey here with a forged note.”
“I’ve saved every message my boy ever wrote me. The look of his writing has been graven on my heart since he was a little lad.”
“You timed your ruse perfectly.”
“With all the commotion up at the hall, I thought no one would miss him! Not till I’d done with him.”
Forrester said heavily, “What did you intend to do with him?” His deep voice sounded so tired.
She said evasively, “Once I’d captured him, there were endless possibilities. He’d poisoned my only son and broken my heart in that place. I fi gured if he met his end there, it would have been what he’d call ‘poetic justice,’” she finished with heavy sarcasm. Holmes said, “When did you mail the packet, Mrs Forrester?”
“As soon as I left yesterday afternoon – when you arrived! We knew time was short with Sir Hugh, and we couldn’t keep the papers at the hall, with you prowling around. I wanted to keep my eye on you, but that meant they weren’t safe at home either. What better place than Sir Hugh’s lap!”
“So you never intended to let the young Syms-Catons follow your instructions.”
She snorted and turned her head. “That wasn’t my idea.”
“Who is your confederate? It may go easier if you tell us now,” Holmes urged.
She laughed scornfully. “When I finally read one of those letters Bob’s always getting, I thought Edmund Percivale was behind it.
I confronted Lady Hilda and demanded she dismiss him for corrupting my boy. She wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted proof. When I showed her the letter, she recognized Aubrey’s handwriting. I told her she had to send him away or I’d tell Sir Hugh. Naturally she didn’t want anyone disturbing her husband in his precarious state. It was her idea to steal the manuscripts and type those notes. She had plenty of opportunities while Aubrey and Kate sat with their uncle. She said they’d do anything for love of him, and we’d both be satisfied. But that very night – even before you got here, Mr Holmes – Aubrey was seducing my boy, while his uncle lay at death’s door. Even the loss of his precious poems didn’t stop him. I knew then that no matter what Lady Hilda said, he’d never leave.”
When we reached the hall, Forrester sent one of Sir Hugh’s grooms to the police station for offi cers and a wagon. While I revived Aubrey and cleaned him up, explaining the situation, Forrester locked his mother in the pantry with a footman to guard the door. On the second floor, we propped Aubrey in one of his uncle’s Bath chairs. Forrester wheeled him into the inner chamber past a procession of local families, villagers, and servants who’d come to express their fondness for Sir Hugh. Lady Hilda must have sent out word soon after he collapsed. Sir Hugh gasped for breath, sometimes managing to murmur their names or squeeze their hands, sometimes simply acknowledging their sentiments with his eyes.
They parted for Aubrey. Tears stood on Sir Hugh’s cheeks as Forrester wheeled him to the bed. Aubrey bowed over his uncle’s hand. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Uncle. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you. I never meant to deceive you, but I didn’t think you’d understand. I’ve been so worried it would do you more harm than good–” His voice broke. Sir Hugh reached out one trembling, featherweight hand to touch his hair, light as a leaf, his blessing. I caught my breath. Sir Hugh’s trembling lips formed the words, “I love you, son.” His eyes moved from Aubrey to Forrester. “Take care of my boy,” he whispered. Lady Hilda had been standing at the foot of the bed with her hand on Edmund’s shoulder. “My darling, won’t you please consider Edmund’s future, before it’s too late?”
Sir Hugh sent a faint smile to Kate where she stood by Edmund’s side. Out of sight of Lady Hilda, they were holding hands. Sir Hugh murmured, “I think Kate has something to say about that, don’t you, Katie?” Kate blushed, and the quick glance she exchanged with Edmund showed they’d been fond of each other for some time. When at last Lady Hilda stepped out of the room, Holmes took her aside. “Your grandmother’s name was Percivale, was it not? Pray, don’t deny it. I recognized the arms on your pendant, and it’s quite clear in the family files.”
She nodded stiffly, her hands knotting in front of her.
Holmes said, “I’m not here to expose your connection. I promised
Sir Hugh I wouldn’t even tell Edmund. He said there was only one person who had the right to divulge that secret, and I agree. However, I advise that you do so quickly, before he loses his chance to talk to Sir Hugh without any confusion about his parentage. He looks up to your husband as to a father. I believe it would mean a lot to him to know where he stands.”
Under the strain, she looked ill and old. “Hugh wouldn’t adopt my boy unless I told, and I didn’t want him to be ashamed of me. I thought adoption would provide us a new beginning – a chance to have a valid family connection without ever having to admit my sin. But Hugh feared it would displace his brother’s children,” she finished with a trace of bitterness.
“You must forget that now. Some things are more important than pride.”
She nodded quickly, as if afraid her resolution would run away from her if she didn’t act at once. We watched as she told Edmund. Hope rose up through his face like the sun. As he listened, he unconsciously straightened. Then he rushed back in to Sir Hugh, his face glowing.
We stayed for the funeral. In the end, Aubrey and Kate decided not to press charges against Lady Hilda for the theft. The secret was still more important than punishment. But Forrester had glumly followed justice to the letter with regard to the attempt on Aubrey’s life. He said he had all the more reason to remain staunch to the law, now that his own mother had crossed that unforgivable line. Despite their grief and anger toward one another, he knew his mother wouldn’t divulge her reasons: Mrs Forrester wouldn’t publicly besmirch her son’s name even to hurt Aubrey Syms-Caton.
We were glad to get back to Baker Street and rest. Holmes sighed wearily, leaning back in his armchair. “I’m so utterly sick of secrets, Watson.” He laid his head on the back of the chair and shut his eyes while the calabash smouldered in his hand. I fumbled for the words that might finally air the truth between us. I’m not sure I would have been able to speak if Holmes had his eyes on me in that moment. “Holmes, that night at Forrester’s house – what he thought about you – is it true?”
Without opening his eyes, Holmes said, “Does it matter? I can’t allow love to interfere with the pure science of reason. Having a friend like you is as close as I dare come.”
I knew how much he hated to make a false step. For Holmes to even raise a point, he must already be certain of the answer. I had to be clear. “I’m touched, Holmes. Believe me. Your friendship means more than I can say. But I’m not sure I can live this way forever. I’m the sort of man who needs a companion of the heart, not just the mind.”
“I’ll say this only once, my dear Watson. If there were anyone, it would be you. I’ve never found a better companion. Probably I never shall. But there are barriers that I cannot cross. I must bend my entire self to my will, to maintain absolute control.” In a rare gesture of affection, he touched my hand. “If this were a battlefield, I would give my life for yours. But I do not expect you to give up your life to share the loneliness of mine. Go out into the world, Watson, and find the love you need.”
There was such sadness in his eyes, such intensity. We both knew it, then – soon I would leave, so that we might continue as friends. Already I saw these moments with the painful pinch of something fleeting. In the very moment that I recognized our golden age, I knew that it was over. I told myself I was only setting aside those hopes which might have hampered our accord. Now that we had got such questions out of the way, we could concentrate on our partnership, professional and friendly. But I always wondered what mansions might have waited for us down that hidden lane.
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